The History of Finger Cymbals
The use of Zills, as most dancers call them, is believed to have been around in its modern form possibly since the bronze age. Evidence in the form of paintings and carvings show handheld percussion instruments (not necessarily metal) were used in both Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. The thought is that the advent of different alloy metals in the Bronze Age allowed for instruments to be created to produce a specific tone – sharp and crisp to smooth and melodic or anything in between. Although less popular in Egypt now, it is widely agreed that Egyptian Belly Dancers were the first to integrate the finger cymbals regularly into their dance routines.
Known in the US primarily has “Finger Cymbals” this dancing accessories goes by many names in many languages. Here is a quick rundown for those who know it by another name or are curious:
- Arabic: Sagat, Sajat, Sil sil, Sonouj
- Turkish: Zil, Zill, Zilleri
- Farsi/Persian: Zang, Salasih
Zills in Modern Belly Dancing
In the US, finger cymbals are very common among high level performers. While it is definitely the case that some instructors and some styles have moved away from Zills, it is not at all uncommon to see performers use finger cymbals in every dance of a performance. There seems to be a renewed emphasis on the use of finger cymbals in American Tribal dance, something I find encouraging.
The use of Zills in Egypt is somewhat waning. It’s sad to see, because Egypt is universally recognized as the country that put finger cymbals on the map. For a considerable time period, you would have only rarely seen a belly dancer that wasn’t using Zills. A friend on mine that dances in Egypt says that the view is that finger cymbals are “rural”. From speaking with her, it sounds like the bands playing the music have become more sophisticated and have taken over the role that the finger cymbals may have played for the dancer.
Why I like Finger Cymbals
In my mind the use of Zills gives the dancer an opportunity to further combine the music and their moves. I believe it can legitimately be considered as an art inside an art. The dancer now has an audible and visual influence on the audience. For me, this is an empowering thought. I’m now presenting a visual piece of art and a musical piece of art in a single performance. I also believe that provides something extra for the audience. The audience not only sees a connection between the dancer and the music by the moves of the dancer, but also by the rhythm of the dancers finger cymbals.
Learning to Use Zills
Near East Dance has a good reference page showing the Zills beats and styles here. It’s a difficult skill to practice only be reading about it. Like all skills, it requires a considerable amount of practice. Like many other skills, we recommend the DVD set Belly Dancing Course to get some excellent instructional material on this as well as just about anything else you can think of in the realm of Belly Dancing.