The Blog

A Belly Dance Prompt For Practice & Choreo Ideas

Sometimes you just need an idea. Whether it’s something fresh to motivate you for a personal practice session, planning a class or something to spark a solution for a section of choreography. Those are good times to think out of the box. Having a few prompts on hand can help you get started. Let’s look at one and some ways you can use it.

Prompt: Choose a shape and see how many ways you can express it.

We could go with something easy like a circle or an infinity shape, but let’s reach a little further and use a triangle as our example. That’s not a standard shape in our movement vocabulary like a hip circle or figure 8 so that should push us into some new ways to use what we know. That’s exactly what a good prompt does!

How can you create triangle-shaped movement on different body parts?

  • Use rib slides, lifts and drops to draw triangles with your chest. Try pointing the triangle both up and down. Try alternating them for an upper body drill.
  • Create a triangle on the front of your hips using low, wide hip slides and a high centered pelvic tuck
  • Use an unweighted front hip twist, back hip twist and a high hip up to draw a triangle on one side.
  • Working with your hips as the wide base and your ribs at the top, expand your triangle to upper and lower body. Try a shimmying hip slide with a rib pop when you pass through center!

How can you move in a triangular path in your space? And when would that work well?

Consider your space with the point of the triangle at center stage and the wide base along the downstage edge. By traveling from center to a downstage corner and across, then back upstage to center you can make a strong travelling entrance path. By travelling downstage and across, you welcome and acknowledge your audience then plant yourself back at the power position of your stage. Many magence-style compositions start out with just that – a travelling entrance that transitions into the “let’s get to the serious dancing” part!

Ok, now that we’ve thought about when that could be useful, let’s thing about how to approach it. Brainstorm through your travelling step vocabulary and look for interesting ways to mark the corners and make transitions to the next angle of the path. Those transitions can be smooth like a spin that slides right into the next travelling section, or dynamic with sharp contrast. Your music will tell you which one you need.

In a less literal sense, how about a triangle of size, energy or intensity?

Consider two triangles – one pointing up and one pointing down. Let’s interpret that as an increasing and decreasing factor.

  • Choose a movement (any one – it doesn’t have to be triangle shaped here!) and take it from the smallest your can make it to the largest form you can do. Go from the tiniest shoulder roll to big rippling snake arms as an example.
  • Play with increasing the energy level. Start with your biggest, most energetic shimmy then gradually dial it down to barely there, then crank it back up!
  • Try barely travelling with a tiny bourree step and increasing the amount of ground you cover by moving on to a grapevine and then really whipping though your space with a series of travelling turns (if you’ve got the room!).

These are certainly just a few of the ways you could use the prompt of a triangle. What ideas come to your mind?

For lots more practice ideas and short tutorial videos, be sure you’re subscribed to The Bellydance Quickies email!

Share your ideas in the comments below….


October 6, 2017 0 Comments

The Drummer, The Belly Dancer… And The Baseball Player?

the ptichRecently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research on practice techniques – both for my own personal practice and to better help my students achieve their dance goals. In my reading this week,  I came across this description of an expert baseball hitter’s skills. It instantly resonated with me and I recognized the parallel in my own world:

“These hitters have just a split second to decide whether to swing and, if so, where to swing. They have no better eyesight than an average person, and their reflexes are no faster. What they have is a set of mental representations developed through years of hitting pitches and getting immediate feedback about their expectations concerning a pitch. These representations enable them to quickly recognize what sort of pitch is coming and where it will likely be when it reaches them. As soon as they see the pitcher’s arm come around and the ball leave his hand, they have a very good idea… they’ve learned to read the pitcher’s delivery, so they have less need to actually see how the ball travels before determining whether and where to swing the bat.” – from “Peak” by Anders Ericsson 

So what does this have to do with bellydance? This immediately struck me as an excellent description of what an expert drummer does in an improvisational drum solo with a dancer. I have had the immense good fortune to work with drummer, Gaby Tawil since my early days performing. In the most optimal live drum solo situations, there is a two-way creative process. The dancer interprets the drummer’s riffs through movement of course, but the best drummers also take cues from the dancer too. In my opinion, that is the gold standard in drummer skill.

In the early years of working with Gaby, I remember thinking he must be psychic – he seemed to be able to somehow predict what I’m going to do and match me perfectly with accents and tempo shifts. As we spent more years together, I thought we were just accustomed to each other’s style – which I am sure is true – but could not completely account for his uncanny ability. After about 10 years, it occurred to me that he’s “pre-reading” my body for sign of what I’ll do next. Over 40-plus years, he’s learned to recognize the wind up of a sharp hip twist and instinctively react with a sharp pop. He spots the little hop that might precede a big shimmy and goes in for the roll, at which time I follow him in tone and intensity – higher and lower, tiny subtle shimmies to big shake-everything-you’ve-got ones! That’s the thrill of improvisational performance – I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it as I write!

In the case of the drummer, the “mental representations” are the movement preparations. As dancers, we have them too. We learn to hear the musical cues that signal transitions in music and in a split second be ready for a change- any change. Other mental representations may be kinds of musical passages  – akin to different kinds of pitches in the case of the baseball player- taqsims, soft melodies, percussive breaks – to which our brain and hips reflexively respond from a category of appropriate movements that we know from experience to work well. From there we tailor the movement on the fly as we see where the music leads us.

Being aware of this split-second process can help us pinpoint very specific skills to practice. In the case of drummer-dancer communication, working together directly can help drummers learn to read movement preparation and develop some appropriate responses. For solo dancers working on improvisational skills, preparing by practicing “go-to” steps and ideas for different types of musical and percussive passages can help them respond more quickly and accurately to musical changes. I like to call these “thinking steps”. When I’m working with students on improvisational skills, one of our first lessons is finding one or two for each different kind of music they might encounter.

I find learning how we learn to be a fascinating part of teaching bellydance. How can you apply some of these practice techniques to what you are working on currently? Tell us in the comments below…


September 8, 2017 0 Comments

Originality & Tradition in Belly Dance: An Interview with Joana Saahirah of Cairo

Joana Intervie


I recently had the opportunity to interview Joana Saahirah, international performer and instructor. Joana’s dance career has taken her around the globe, including living and working in Egypt for 8 years, performing with her own orchestra. In this interview,  we discuss the different views of Raqs Sharqi she has encountered, originality within the confines of a traditional dance style and more.

Mahin: It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you! You have such a broad and deep experience with oriental dance.

Joana: Thanks for the interview, first of all. It´s always a pleasure to share a bit of my love for oriental dance. Yes, I do – and a very peculiar one. It really gives me a special vision on the dance and the world surrounding it. But the road started way before I ever dreamt about Egyptian dance. I´ve been dancing since I started to walk, then Classical Ballet Conservatory from the age of 5, and other dance styles along the way. Later on, I studied as an actress as the Acting Conservatory. All that gave me the base for my career in Egyptian dance.

M: To start out, can you give us some of your reflections on how Oriental dance as an art form is viewed differently in the East and the West?

J: It´s hard to resume, in a short interview answer  but I´ll try to resume the most important points.

First, the East. Egypt specifically, which is what I know best.

Although Oriental dance – Raqs Sharqi or Egyptian dance – is an integral part of Egyptian culture and daily life, it´s not considered an art form. This happens for many reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that dancers, and any woman who exposes herself in public, is not respected. According to Islam, the dominant religion in the country for the last centuries, women should not expose themselves in public in front of men who are not their father, husband or close relatives. Women aren’t supposed to have a voice of their own, aside from their husband’s voice, or rule a group of men (the orchestra, technicians, assistant, etc), in the case of a dancer.

That’s the first reason why Oriental dance is not respected and treated as an art form. In fact, Oriental dance is under the tourism department in Egypt, not the cultural department.

Oriental dance has also been associated with prostitution and there´s a long story and justification for this. The current Cairo market is highly corrupt and it works mostly  through favours, prostitution and factors that have little to do with quality, professionalism or talent. This also doesn’t help the dance´s reputation. In the 8 years I´ve performed with my orchestra in Egypt, I had to find 1001 ways to go around the corruption and prostitution market in order to thrive. And deal with prejudice and disrespect in my daily life. Not easy!

Add to these factors the freedom element and you start having an idea of how Oriental dance and dancers are seen. An Oriental dancer is FREE, a woman who expresses herself in public totally and unapologetically – body, mind, heart and soul. No limits, no taboos, no fear. That´s revolutionary – in the East and, certainly, still in the West.

Egyptians love and hate their dance, simultaneously. They may come every night to watch their favourite dancer perform but they’d never accept her as a girlfriend, wife, part of the family. She may be a great dancer in their eyes but she’s also shameful, committing “haram” (something forbidden by God).

M: That’s interesting that Oriental dance is under tourism and not culture. When did that shift? Was Mahmoud Reda’s company under the cultural department?


J: Yes, under the tourism department. I was shocked when I realized this as I was shocked with many other things I’ve found out while working in Egypt, Lebanon and Qatar, the 3 countries where I performed, as a solo artist in the Middle East. Mahmoud Reda´s troupe was something completely apart from the Oriental dance scene.

It was, and is, Egyptian folklore. Not Raqs Sharqi. This makes a huge difference in Egyptian minds. It also worked with diplomatic relations, a way of presenting group dances that went according to Islam (not too much body exposure, limitation in movements that may be sexually suggestive and so forth) and it was wrapped in western influences – ballet, tap dance, acrobatics, all of Mahmoud´s influences. That, and the time it happened, a time of nationalism and particular pride in everything Egyptian helped the troupe.

The genius of Mahmoud, the dancers, the composers who worked with the troupe and overall vision were also essential to Mahmoud Reda´s success. He recovered the raw material – music, dance, dialect, clothing – from different parts of Egypt, folklore people had never seen on a stage, and transformed it into a stage language that communicated the soul and identity of Egypt’s diverse people. Such a feat! Only a genius with a vision and lucky circumstances could make it happen!

The troupe never claimed to present Raqs Sharqi, I repeat. I studied, privately, and worked with Mahmoud Reda during all my years of work in Egypt and it was always clear to me he did folklore, and I did it with him, and what I did was Raqs Sharqi. For him, as for most Egyptians, those are separate things. The folklore deserves respect, for many reasons, while Raqs Sharqi doesn´t.

M: That is an important distinction that is easy to blur from the western point of view. Perhaps because as students of Egyptian dance, we choose to study both Raqs Sharqi and folklore as part of our dance exploration. They are much closer to each other in our perception. Not so in the minds of Egyptians, as you noted.

Tell us how you have seen and experienced the western view of Raqs Sharqi/Oriental dance in your travels.

J: In the West, the scene is different but the prejudices also exist. We’re not free from prejudice. Even the most intelligent, well educated, travelled, open minded people will usually associate Oriental dance with odalisques, sultans and seduction. The idea of an art form, or the possibility of practicing Oriental dance as an art form and not as an exotic dance made of contortions and seductive poses, is still new to the mainstream audiences.

Nonetheless, the West has brought dignity, method, structure and professionalism to Oriental Dance. No doubt about it. We miss loads of important points regarding Egyptian dance and culture but there’s a serious, honest, loving effort to dignify the dance.

You can see that by observing all the amazing festivals happening around the world, inviting artists and teachers like me and other professionals from Egypt, really trying to make a difference.

There´s a trend I call “Clone Machine Factory” where people are trained to look, act, think and dance like their teachers – something that goes totally against Egyptian Dance – and there are trends that have little, or nothing, to do with the REAL thing but mostly, I’m optimistic. The West tries, at least tries, to elevate the dance. Each person I meet in my work trips – organizer, student, audience – loves and respects the dance. I´ve never met anyone in the West, especially in the international events circuit, who wasn´t doing their best to develop and dignify Oriental dance as an art form.

M: Do you think some of the West’s respect and willingness to view Raqs Sharqi as an art has benefitted the dance in Egypt in some way? If so, how?

J: In some way, perhaps. Nowadays, Egyptian dancers work more outside of Egypt than in Egypt. I don’t mean the lower class dancers who cannot get a lucky strike with the Oriental dance mafia in Cairo, but the ones who can. By working more outside of Egypt than there, they’re exposed to the West´s ideas about dance, professionalism and respect. I believe that influences those dancers but only until a certain point. How they act in Egypt and abroad may be quite different.

Otherwise, I don’t think the West´s respect for this dance has changed the dance in Egypt. It´s a world apart, with its own rules, spoken and unspoken prejudices and magic.

M: In dance, as in any art, there is a tendency to be influenced by what is popular or successful. Sometimes it’s a subtle style influence out of admiration, sometimes it’s so strong it feels like mimicry.  Can you give us your thoughts on individual style – where we stay in the realm of what is “real” Raqs Sharqi (if there is such a definition) and where a dancer’s personality can take them with their own expression?

J: There´s a compromise to be made and I refuse it. Adaptation, yes. Expansion/growth, for sure. Compromising what I know is authentic Egyptian dance for the current trends, NO! I´ll never do that. It would mean the end of my love for the dance. Discarding all I’ve learned in years of study in Egypt and, later, years of career and life in order to please current lobbies and tendencies-  no way!

It´s hard to keep the essence of the dance intact while being a commercially successful dancer in a market that knows little about the dance.

Being influenced by other dancers, teachers, people we admire – no problem. Working to be their copy – NO. That´s what´s happening these days. Some of the most commercially appealing dancers of the West know little about Egyptian dance. But somehow, it becomes established, I know know by whom, that´s Oriental Dance when it´s not. People follow it blindly. They lack the resources, real information and criteria to recognize what´s fake and what’s the real thing.

Individuality is at the CORE of Egyptian dance. Nonetheless, most teachers I know don’t develop it in their students.

Knowing the language of Egyptian Dance in depth – because it is a language! – is essential; gathering information, training, reliable education by the ones who actually know the craft. All that is super important. Nonetheless, all that exterior data must be combined/coordinated with personal exploration, perspective, individual input on the music and dance. Oriental dancers should be individuals – unique, with their own vision and sensibility -, not dolls who mimic other dolls. Real human beings, with a body, mind, heart and soul of their own, interpreting the music, using all the data they´ve gathered from teachers and other exterior sources WHILE DISCOVERING THEIR LANGUAGE WITHIN THE LANGUAGE OF EGYPTIAN DANCE.

Teachers have the obligation to educate and empower students to grow into their own selves. I believe in this with all my heart.It doesn’t serve my marketing, in the sense that I don´t allow my students to become Joana Saahirah´s copies; I train them to be free, independent from me, totally themselves. But it serves the Art. And I´m a servant of the Art.

Information without an individual voice isn’t Egyptian Dance. As a famous theatre teacher, Konstantin Stanislavzki, once said: “actors study technique so they can be free from technique; so they can forget technique.” The same applies to Oriental Dancers. We absorb information, train ourselves and work hard so we can be free from all that luggage and express, simply and totally, our full selves. It takes a Master Teacher to understand this and put it into practice.

M: The author Todd Henry, writes about creative development and its phases. It starts with discovery – generally becoming aware of a new interest or art. It proceeds to emulation – learning by copying the masters.Then divergence – being dissatisfied by being a copy and evolving your own style – making your unique contribution to your art.  Do you see the mimicry as a step, but one that many dancers have not moved past in their own development?

J: Yes. The problem is most dancers get stuck, forever and ever, at the second phase – the copying/emulating phase. They’re never invited to jump out of that box and find themselves. That´s the problem. Copying as part of the learning process is natural – we do so while learning how to read or write. But, then, if you wish to write your own stuff, you gotta give up those copies, put them behind, appreciate their influence and purpose but, ultimately, find your own voice.

Getting stuck into the copy phase and not being empowered to get out of there – that´s one of the biggest issues in today’s dance scene around the world. The teachers are to blame but there’s more: not everyone wants to get out of the box and find their own voice. Building your language within the language you learn from your teachers requires passion, consistent work, trials, errors and bliss and, the most scary part, the risk of exposing ourselves and not being accepted.

While you’re repeating your teacher´s moves, it´s THEIR moves, not yours. Your teacher, not you, is on the table. If people like it, it’s the teacher’s compliment; if they don’t, it’s the teacher’s fault. Not yours. There´s a lot of people who still prefer the safe shortcut which copying brings but my experience, in work around the world and in my online courses, is that more and more dancers are tired of being puppets and really want to find themselves in the dance. The result is gorgeous. I´m always amazed at the beauty, originality and soul that pours out of dancers when I guide them and empower them to find their own way within the dance. It’s beyond gorgeous and it makes me immensely proud of them. Human beings are so much more interesting, and unique, than we usually think.

M: In the interest of completeness to Todd Henry’s work – he also describes a fourth phase-  crisis. Where an artist finds themselves “protecting” the style they are known for and have had success with and not continuing to evolve their personal style. This leads to a new cycle of discovery. Can you identify with that fourth phase personally in your own work?

J: That crisis phase makes perfect sense. I can recognize myself in it and I guess everyone who’s been in the dance field for a consistent amount of time will find it continuously.

There´s a base, a core that I never changed from the moment I fully remembered it in Egypt. It happened with Souhair Zaki and a certain number of classes I took with her before I moved to Egypt. That core has never been shaken or changed inside of me – the conviction that Egyptian Dance is the language of the soul, movements pouring directly from the heart, freedom exercised with an open mind and the willingness to expand. This has never changed or went through a crisis. Even the darkest side of the dance, which I’ve witnessed, first hand in Egypt could not shake that core.

But we must evolve, question, expand, adapt our art to our own growth as human beings and the world around us. And trying new roads, new ways of doing things. For sure. Always.

Reinvention is essential for a long term relationship with this dance. Especially if you’re a professional.

The creation of my first published book – “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” – and, now, my new school – Joana Saahirah´s Online Dance School operated by Powhow – were two obvious out of the box leaps of faith. Two challenging ways to share the core of Egyptian dance. But there are many other ways. And there´s also the crisis that throws us into the question: why am I still doing this? Why should I continue? Those questions/crisis modes are essential.

M: Can you suggest some ways that dancers can check in with themselves and their work about whether they are stuck in an emulation phase? Questions they can ask of themselves to be more self-aware?

J: Checking in, to make sure we’re in this for the right reasons, is essential.

One thing I can share – respect your teacher(s) while exploring yourself, your movements, your way to reacting to the music. I believe the meaning of what I just said will be obvious to every dancer. Go to your dance studio, or similar, and combine your teacher´s information with periods of self-exploration. There are many ways to do that. Once again, you´ll have to join one of my workshops, or online classes, to know why and how.

It´s not a question of getting to a point when you should be asking yourself certain questions. Students should be empowered to explore, and know themselves, from the beginning till the end of their education which,  by the way, never ends.

It´s a continuous work, not something you do from a certain point. Creating your own style may start to arise when you have gathered a considerable amount of information and practice but the training to do so starts in the first class, in the ABC. I believe in that. Even if I’m dealing with a beginner, I´ll suggest she/he reinvents a certain movement, explores a specific part of her/his body and so on. I know it will take time, and different phases, for this person to fly on her own but I prepare her/his wings from the beginning so, when the time comes, she/he won´t be afraid to jump.

M: Joana, thank you so much for your time and sharing your views on Egyptian dance and  what you’ve learned in your career. It’s been a pleasure!

J: You’re most welcome, dear. I hope the interview informs and inspires many dancers.

For more information…

About Joana Saahirah

Connect with Joana on Facebook

Joana Saahirah’s YouTube Channel


June 16, 2017 0 Comments

The Belly Dance Lesson Scam: How To Spot It & Not Get Taken

Bad people are out there – and some of them have their sights set on the the bellydance community. In particular, I’m talking about scam artists. Recently, I’ve seen a lot of people posting about this on Facebook, asking if a request for services they have received is legitimate. I have been getting these for so many years, I was really surprised that so many dancers had never seen or heard of it before. So as a public service to the bellydance community – I thought I’d get this on the record so we can spread some education and awareness and be on our guard against those that would design to steal your money out from under you.

How To Spot The Belly Dance Scam

In general, the communication comes as an email, although in the past 3 months I have also had several come as text messages. The wording is almost identical, the most current version requests choreography and lessons for a “flashmob” bridesmaids’ performance. In years past, they were more often a request for dance lessons for a child visiting from abroad, usually several lessons per week for a few weeks. Here are some screen shots of ones I’ve received in the past few weeks.

scam 5

scam 3






One laughable giveaway is that they often ask  you to choreograph a John Legend song, “All of Me”. And exactly *why* are you coming to a bellydance teacher for that? Hmmm.

How Does This Belly Dance Scam Work?

It’s not immediately obvious just how this ruse works. They ask for a price for lessons for the bridesmaids and want to pay by credit card. The twist comes when they ask to add the driver’s fee to the charges, because this poor guy just can’t take credit cards. And you’re willing to help them out, right?

Once you’ve given the money to the driver, they reverse the card charge and – voila, they’ve got some of your money!  I have gotten that far in the discussion with one person. I knew already that it was a scam, but I was just curious to probe the situation to see what more I could learn about it. Here’s a shot of the email conversation where they bring up the driver’s fees.

scam 2





What Should You Do?

So now you know. What should you do if you get one of these propositions? Belly dancers that have been fielding them for years have taken a variety of approaches.

  • The best tactic is not to reply. You can report it to the Federal Trade Commission here.  If the person sent it from a gmail account, you can report it here. Report scam emails from Yahoo addresses here. This violated the Terms of Use for both email services. 
  • You can have some fun stringing them along if you like. One dancer on Facebook said she demanded to be paid in birdseed, which made me laugh out loud – literally! I used to do this sometimes, but the entertainment value has long since dried up and I refuse to give them a second more of my precious time and attention. If you’ve got the itch to mess with them – go for it – but please also report it.

Here’s a fun response from Amity of Raq-On that she generously let me share with you!

scam 6

Be on the lookout for these. Tell a friend, share this post and help protect our community from scam artists and financial predators.

The Evolution of Finger Cymbals

This is a guest post by Dawn Devine – Davina. I am really honored to have her work shared here on my blog. I have such respect for her dedication to research and her ability to show us the depth of history in all aspects of our art. If you are as fascinated by this history of zills as I am, you will be very excited about what we’re doing over the next few days!  Learn more after you’ve enjoyed this short history of finger cymbals.

Scholars of dance love to theorize on the origins of our art form. We contemplate the regions that may have given rise to unique body motions or the cultures that developed different musical styles.  But there is one component of our dance that has been definitively proven to date back to pre-literate antiquity.  These are our much beloved favorite music instrument, the mighty finger cymbal.  

In this article, we’re going to take a trip through time and trace the evolution of finger cymbals from their popular precursors through today.  This is an overview of the technological advances that begins deep in prehistory and extends through our current, modern finger cymbal production. This is a story of the development of the metals used to produce the instruments we use today.


Egyptian Wood and Bone Clappers 2000BCE – 500CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Copper Age

Our journey begins back in the 4th millennium or 3000 BCE.  It’s a time when our ancestors were still making music with wooden clappers, skinned drums, and simple stringed instruments which rarely survive. The smallest, most portable, and easiest to make instruments were simple concussive idiophones. This is a category of musical instruments that produce resonant sound from the intrinsic property of the item. Our forbearers used materials such as wooden sticks, lengths of ivory or bone, and precious stones to produce pleasing resonant sounds to their ears.


The discovery of smelting ore, and humankind’s first practical metal, copper, allowed people to craft stronger and more practical work tools, kitchen utensils, and weapons. It also added a new material for making musical instruments.  Some of the earliest finger cymbals are made from copper or simple copper alloys.  Examples of these earliest instruments survive because of their value and importance in daily life. They have been found in the graves of wealthy and important individuals ranging from Anatolia (modern Turkey) around the Eastern Mediterranean to Egypt.  

Egyptian Finger Cymbals or Copper Alloys and Bronze, 1000 BCE - 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Egyptian Finger Cymbals of Copper Alloys and Bronze, 1000 BCE – 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Bronze Age

The next phase of technological development in metallurgy coincided with a rapid growth in civilization. At the dawn of the bronze age, writing developed, cities grew, and people began to live in larger groups defined by their mutual languages, religions, and social beliefs. As the population of the world blossomed, there were more people to make music, sing songs, and dance. This new material, bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, made a stronger and more durable metal.  It was used extensively to create musical instruments around the world including struck instruments like the gongs of China, jingling instruments like the sistrum of Egypt, and our favorite, finger cymbals. Archeologists have unearthed hundreds of sets of cymbals in sites around the Mediterranean that span the breadth of the bronze age.



Egyptian Finger Cymbals 1000 BCE - 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld

Egyptian Finger Cymbals 1000 BCE – 500 CE Louvre Exhibit, Alisha Westerfeld


Because the human hand hasn’t changed significantly in design and shape, ancient finger cymbals are about the same configuration as modern instruments. The length of the fingers determines the maximum and minimum size possible. Consequently finger cymbals of great antiquity closely resemble their modern descendants. Bronze zills also sounded much better than than earlier copper varieties. They are still coveted by performers today for their resonant sound and long sustaining ring.

Ceremony at Ned Sili,1801 by Luigi Mayer engraving based on aquatint.

Ceremony at Ned Sili,1801 by Luigi Mayer engraving based on aquatint.

Brass Instruments

Finger cymbals made from brass are a relatively new invention. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and throughout the Middle Ages, zinc was difficult to find and was tricky to smelt.  It wasn’t until the early stages of the industrial revolution in Europe that large scale brass production was made possible.  By the late 18th century, brass was made in large rolling mills which created enough metal that a new class of wind instruments was invented. These brass instruments, includes flutes, French horns, and the mighty tuba.

Turkish Cengi, 1802 by Octavian Dalvimart from the book “Costume of Turkey.”

Turkish Cengi, 1802 by Octavian Dalvimart from the book “Costume of Turkey.”

Of course, as time passes and the technologies of print and industrial papermaking and bookbinding improve, we begin to find images of dancers making their way into texts on culture, costuming, and history of the world. Throughout the whole of the 19th century, the subject of the exotic east was so abundant, that they are now grouped and labelled as the Orientalists.  Our dancing ancestors move through these paintings and illustrations, often with props we would recognize and use today, including finger cymbals.

Dance of the Almeh, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Dayton Art Institute

Dance of the Almeh, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Dayton Art Institute


German Silver & Silver Toned Alloys

As metallurgy advanced during the industrial era, there was a search for an alloy that closely resembled silver.  A recipe was found after an 1823 contest in Germany.  This new “German Silver” is a nickel and copper alloy that had the appearance of silver, but without the tarnishing or the high cost.  Nickel or German silver retains the beautiful ringing tone of all of the “red metals” that include copper as the base. But unlike copper, brass, and bronze, this alloy has a beautiful silver toned finish. This is the same metal used by instrument makers for piccolos and french horns.  The ringing tone of nickel silver is brighter and higher, but unfortunately, this is a softer metal, so is prone to scratches and warping with heavy use.

Modern Finger Cymbals, Dawn Devine

Modern Finger Cymbals, Dawn Devine

Modern Finger Cymbals

Dancers are now able to buy finger cymbals made from a myriad of different metal alloys, finishes, and in in sounds from high toned trills, to deeply resonate rings. Today they are known by a wide variety of names depending on your location.  In Turkey, they are called Zil or Ziller.  In Egypt they are called sagat for smaller sizes and toura for larger orchestral instruments. Here in the US, we use any or all of these terms depending on our taste, style, and dance education.

Modern Zills by Dawn Devine - 1 - Decorative Enamel on mystery alloy , 2 - copper alloy, 3 - Brass cymbals, Turquoise International, 4 - German silver, Saroyan International, 5 - Cast Bronze, Sabian, 6 - Bronze stamped, Saroyan International.

Modern Zills by Dawn Devine – 1 – Decorative Enamel on mystery alloy , 2 – copper alloy, 3 – Brass cymbals, Turquoise International, 4 – German silver, Saroyan International, 5 – Cast Bronze, Sabian, 6 – Bronze stamped, Saroyan International.


So when you are selecting your next set of finger cymbals take a moment to consider the kind of metal you enjoy.  If you have the opportunity to hear how different metals sound and resonate,  take the opportunity to listen to copper, bronze, brass, and white metals. Many performers select their instruments based solely on how they sound. Pro dancers will often create a wardrobe of different metal toned instruments to coordinate with their wardrobe, choosing to play silver-toned sets with silvery costumes and brass with gold.  But always, buy the best quality you can afford and a ring that you enjoy. If you like the way your finger cymbals sound, you remove one obstacle from practice, and ultimately performance.   

“ZILLS: Music on Your Fingertips”


Dawn Devine ~ Davina is a well known author, costume designer, and historian working in the field of belly dance.  She has published several books the meld her love of history and dance including her latest book Zills: Music on Your Fingertips with Illustrator George Goncalves and The Cloth of Egypt: All About Assiut with photographer Alisha Westerfeld.  She has a blog on her website, and is active on various social media platforms including:





Get a copy of Zills: Music On your Fingertips from Amazon –

Or directly from the author on Etsy –



February 23, 2017 3 Comments