When Your Wrists Say “No”

April 5, 2012 12 Comments

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…

Mahin (121 Posts)

Professional instructor and performer of Middle Eastern belly dance, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and author or the “Daily Bellydance Quickies”. Belly Dance Artrepreneur, Workshop instructor, performer, event producer, and bellydance writer.

  1. Nancy
    April 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Good suggestions! I have rhuematoid arthritis in my wrists, finger joints on both hands and carpal tunnel in both hands. I find that if I do some finger excercises and warm my hands up that helps. Actually, I feel that zilling helps slow the process of the disease by keeping my hands limber and more fluid.

  2. Evelyne
    April 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Thank you Mahin,
    I have a few ladies who have limited movement in their hands and fingers and this will help them enormously.

  3. Princess Farhana
    April 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I had wrist tendonitis severely in both hands & carpal tunnel in my right hand from too much typing and cymbal playing. This was about 8 years ago, and it went on for a whole year. I was in isolation braces and had lost a lot of strength in my fingers; my right hand was going numb & I couldn’t even unscrew caps bottles or do up/undo buttons on my clothing. The operation for carpal tunnel was suggested.

    I finally found a physical therapist who showed me a series of simple excercises done with a Theraband that almost immediately ( within two weeks) alleviated my pain & other symptoms, as well as strengthening the area around the wrist tendons. I still do them, and have never had a problem since then!

    I know she’s already had the operation, but if she hasn’t been prescribed physical therapy, she should ask about it, she could very well gain increased range of motion!

    1. mahinbellydance
      April 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      It seems to me that physical therapy should always be tried before surgery. It just makes sense and so many times it works! I spent a summer as an intern at a physical therapy clinic and saw some really fantastic recoveries – very encouraging 🙂

  4. Taji
    April 5, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    getting very light weight zills might help. I had to sell my Zildjians—they were just too heavy and hurt my wrists.

    1. mahinbellydance
      April 5, 2012 at 9:40 pm

      Excellent point – and one I didn’t think about. Thanks for bringing it up. Lightweight zills would be another good way to reduce strain.

  5. Denise
    April 6, 2012 at 5:29 am

    I have periodic issues with my hands. Often when I can not extend my fingers to play zils, I can still hold my Turkish spoons. Love the tamborine idea as well!

  6. Fotia
    April 10, 2012 at 9:13 am

    I had surgery on both wrists and two nerves in my elbow due to carpel tunnel syndrome. It was hard for me to use my hands for up to five years. I still can have trouble to this day (many years later), but I also found that by now I can use zills again, I just had to “build up” my tolerance. So there is a day when you can use them again.

  7. Wallace-Ruby
    April 24, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I practice zills lying flat on my back with my arms in a goal post position, this allows a relaxed place from which to practice and explore that muscle support comes up through the sacrum, and not by clenching forearms and wrists. And no, falling asleep while playing zills has not been a problem 🙂

    1. mahinbellydance
      April 24, 2012 at 5:41 pm

      That’s interesting… I’ll have to see what that feels like. I guess it works to explore muscular support, but it’s kind of hard to dance like that! :-O

  8. Wallace-Ruby
    April 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Overlooked saying that this is a part of my physical therapy! I worked this out with the help of a massage/physical therapist and a drummer.

  9. Jade
    May 1, 2012 at 11:24 am

    This is a big fear of mine. A couple months ago I was having intense wrist pain. I didn’t see a doctor about it, but started paying more attention to how I hold my wrists so as not to strain them. I now make an effort to hold my wrists straight when I type, don’t bend too extremely when dancing and hold them in a good, not too bent position when I zill. They have been feeling better. I am hoping too avoid any future problems.


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