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Teaching Zills in a Multi-Level Belly Dance Class

Multi-level classes have a lot of advantages for students, and present a few challenges for instructors, but personally, I   love teaching  this way!  For the student at any level, it allows them to move forward with new material on the skills they have mastered and take their time to improve those they are still working on. As we move from one movement or combo to the next, there are always options – provided the instructor is prepared.

A good multi-level class instructor will have 2 ( I prefer 3) variations ready for each class exercise they’ll be presenting. There’s a lot more class prep, but that’s not all. The instructor has to be able to keep an eye on each individual student as she moves through the room to see how everyone is doing. When I see that a movement is going well,  it’s time to add the next thing. If a student is struggling, I drop it back to where it’s a manageable challenge.

The key is to keep every student working in their personal “challenge zone” That means that they are not bored because it’s too easy and not frustrated because it’s too hard. I have heard from many students that their prior instructors taught by demonstrating at the front of the room and never came around to look at any individual or problem solve their movement issues. This is a shame. This is not teaching in my book – it’s demonstrating. I don’t even instruct this way when I travel and teach a workshop for 30. If a dancer invests their time and money to come to my class,  they deserve to be paid attention to and helped.

Hey, Mahin… I thought this was about teaching zills?

It is. Zills are one of those skills that a class can have a particularly wide skill range on. Some dancers come to class with pretty good foundation skills and no experience with zills. Others are musically inclined from outside of dance and take to them easily even as a beginner with basic movements. So here are a few suggestions for having a whole class drill zills at the same time, with different challenge levels.

Easiest: Have your students walk, stepping on the down beat of the music and just play a single “dum” with each step. I have them use their dominant hand

Step 2: Have them play a single “dum” on the down beat while doing one repeating basic movement, such as a drop kick.

Step 3: Have students walk on the down beat while playing a full rhythm pattern.

Step 4: Have students play a full rhythm pattern while doing a repeating basic or intermediate movement.

Step 5: Have students play a full rhythm while dancing a combination.

This is  just an example of how I build skill progressions, you could easily modify them to fit your own material or teaching style. They are also not a hard and fast linear presentation either. A good, experienced teacher has strong instincts and observation skills. Really LOOK at your student and decide whether to suggest moving a notch up or down in either the movement or the playing. The more you exercise the instinct as an instructor, the better you get at it.

As the instructor, if you take some time to think through these options in advance, you’ll be able to pull them out for each student as needed when you go around the room and lead zill drills.  At first it does feel like you’re running a 3-ring circus (to you, not the students) , but once you’ve got the hang of it, it feels like a fun juggling act. The great part is that is serves your students with exactly what they need when they need it  to become better dancers.


April 26, 2012 0 Comments

When Your Wrists Say “No”

playing zills with a wrist injuryA few weeks ago I got an email from a dancer who used to enjoy playing zills but no longer could due to carpal tunnel issues. Following surgery she has limited hand mobility to play finger cymbals. She was looking for ideas on how she might still be able to use her zills in her dance given these new limitations. I thought this was an interesting question and one that certainly other dancers have had to deal with, so I thought I’d share a few alternative ideas  with everyone here.

Switch instruments

If the issue is only in one hand, consider using a small, light tambourine to participate in your music. A tambourine makes a wonderful, playful and exciting prop that really works with your movement. You can watch a nice example of this here. In this video, Amani is using a larger tambourine, but you get the idea of how versatile it can be, whether the music is slow or lively.

Think “2 Hands”

Striking your zills together in the usual way involves flexion and extension of the ring finger and thumb. The muscles that do this are actually in the forearm, but their tendons that connect to the finger bones run through the wrist, Instead of producing your sound by bringing together the 2 zills on one hand, use both hands. Here are a few examples of ways to make different sounds and accents without aggravating your wrists.

  • Clap Accents: Bring your hands together and clap all 4 zills at one.  Just as with a one-handed sound, you will get a lower, duller sound if you bring them together and keep them closed than if you strike them and open immediately so that they ring. Using these two tones together creatively you can have some fun. Try it!
  • Open Ring: Position your zills as if they made a little box with one pair resting on the top and bottom, the other pair on two opposite side. Check out the picture at the top of this post to illustrate . Wag the hand with the “sides” so that they ring against the stable “top and bottom” zills. This can be done softly or exuberantly, depending on your music.
  • Tap It Out: Holding your hands as you did for a regular clap, you can play many of the same rhythmic pattern you normally would on one hand without the stress of finger flexion and extension if those movements now cause you difficulty or pain. Instead of “right” and left”, substitute “ring fingers” and “thumbs”.   If you use the old trick of having one zill in a different metal, you can have more than one pitch too.

The need to have your hands together to make sound will probably mean that playing will be more of an accent than a continual sonic layer in your dance.  Explore different ways to position your arms that allow your movement to be seen and your body line to be balanced. For example, play overhead while doing larger hip or travelling movements. Position yourself with arms forward on a diagonal to the audience while doing movements that are best viewed in profile. Hold your hands coyly in front of one shoulder while doing movement on the opposite hip – then switch! Yes, there will be some adjustments, but with some effort and flexible thinking, a dancer does not have to mourn the loss of her zills if she’s willing to try some new approaches.

Have you stopped playing zills due to a wrist injury? Have you found ways to play with reduced mobility in your hands and wrists? Tell us about it in the comments below…

April 5, 2012 12 Comments

Another Zill Playalong!

Let’s do another zill playalong. We’ll play along with the main melody line from “Lylet Hob”. The underlying rhythm is Maqsoum, but by using a “bridge” and a variation at the end of the musical phrase we can make our playing much more musical.

Take these concepts – the bridging and phrase-ending variation – and try them out with the melodies of your favorite songs!

Lylet Hob Playalong

August 25, 2011 0 Comments

A Zill Q & A

A student asked me this recently…

Q. Do I have to play my zills for the whole song? And if I don’t, can I just stop and start wherever I want?

A. No, you don’t have to play your zills for any whole song – in fact, you may be overpowering the softer parts of your music if you do. The music calls the shots in this dance style, so when the music goes down in intensity, so should your playing.  You can ring them more softly by barely tapping the edges together, play a less ornamented version of the rhythm pattern with less hits or even stop playing all together. Silence creates contrast – contrast is interesting and good! Experiment and see what compliments the music and your movement best.

Now that we know it’s OK to stop playing, how do you decide when? No, you can’t just stop and start willy-nilly. Well, you could, but it doesn’t look or sound professional. What I see most often in these “random start and stop” situations is that the dancer can’t keep playing while doing more complex movements, so the body goes and the hands stop.  That’s not the best solution – practice is.

Music has structural patterns that give us opportunities to start and stop playing that are comfortable and make sense to your audience. We already mentioned a change in the intensity, but there are also chorus /verse transitions and the phrasing of the melody.  Think of it like a driving on a freeway – you can’t turn off just anywhere – you have to wait for the next exit.

I cover more concepts for adding musicality to your zill playing in my “Thrills with Zills: From Rhythm to Musicality” workshop.  If you’d like to book one in your area, email me  for info and my 2012 workshop selections.

August 11, 2011 0 Comments

Developing a Taste for Belly Dance

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that my first love is dancing – but what you may not know is that I am an avid cook too! I love all kinds of ethnic foods and have amassed a cookbook collection that has well over 250 titles.  Years of hanging around Middle Eastern restaurants for gigs have transformed my diet. Hummus, tabouleh and the like are “normal” food in my house – no more unusual than peanut butter and jelly. But it’s the long-time friendships I’ve enjoyed with two Lebanese women in particular that have introduced me to delicious dishes not usually found on the typical Middle Eastern restaurant menu.  One of these is Burghul bi Banadoura or Bulgur with Tomatoes.  My friend Nadia whips this up like it’s nothing and it smells and tastes so heavenly I can eat bowl after bowl.  It’s as good warm as it is cold. She never wrote her recipe down for me so I have adapted one from Claudia Roden’s “New Book of Middle Eastern Food” to be more like hers.

Burghul bi Banadoura (Bulgur with Tomatoes)

1 large onion, chopped

5 Tbl olive oil

3 cups coarse bulgur, rinsed and drained

1-14 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained and juice reserved

1 Tbl tomato paste

2 tsp sugar

1 tsp allspice

salt & pepper to taste

Water added to reserved tomato juice to total 1 1/2 cups

Fry onion in half the oil till golden. Add bulgur and stir well.

Add diced tomatoes, paste, water and juices, sugar, allspice, salt and pepper. Stir and cook covered over low heat for about 15 minutes. Check after 10 minutes to be sure it isn’t drying out.  If  there isn’t any liquid left in the bottom and the bulgur is still too chewy, then add a little water and cook 5 minutes longer. If it’s too wet, then cook uncovered to let liquid evaporate.

Let sit covered 10 minutes after it’s done cooking. Stir in the other half of the oil.

Serve warm or cold as a side dish. I like mine as a main dish with a green salad. Yum!

Has being involved with belly dance brought new foods into your life? What’s your favorite Middle Eastern dish?
Tell us in the comments below…

July 15, 2011 4 Comments