Finger cymbals, called Sagat in Egypt and Zills in Turkey, are 4 brass discs worn on both middle fingers and thumbs which belly dancers play as an accompaniment to their dancing. These ancient instruments, named after the Goddess Cybele, have a long history that can be dated back to 1500 BC for the brass kind and all the way back to 3300 BC for the wooden and ivory “clappers”. Traditionally finger cymbals were played by all belly dancers as an important part of the small band she danced with. This enabled the dancer to contribute her own percussive interpretation of the music, similar to flamenco dancers with their castanets (which are in fact “cousins” of the finger cymbals). This tradition continued for hundreds of years until the late 20th century. As Elizabeth Artimis Mourat notes in her article “Finger Cymbals: Historical Context”
Up until very recently dancers were judged by their ability to play finger cymbals. If a dancer danced well but could not play her finger cymbals she was regarded as someone who “did not pay her dues” or as someone who was cheating.
In the Middle East dancers played cymbals as a regular part of their set all the way up until around the 1970’s. There is plenty film footage of Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and other great dancers of the Golden Age playing finger cymbals though the actual sound recordings of them playing have ususally been edited out. At some point around the 1970’s the idea of a dancer playing finger cymbals began to be seen as “provincial” and they started being used only in the folkloric tableaux and during the audience participation section of the dancer’s show. I credit this partly to the custom of the time where the most famous and successful dancers hired their own orchestra and if they had enough money they could hire somebody to play the finger cymbals for them. It was a status symbol.
In Turkey finger cymbals continued to be played by dancers through the 20th century and are still played by some dancers today.
In the USA though the story was different. By the 1960’s Middle Eastern nightclubs and dancers had been around and going strong in the USA for over 20 years. This new era of dancers could be called the “second generation” of belly dancers in the USA. These dancers took the finger cymbals and, as my teacher Sabriye Tekbilek says, “Nerded Out” with them. They created patterns and sequences that enabled dancers to play finger cymbals with a huge amount of skill and control. This kind of enthusiasm for organization and codification for teaching and learning finger cymbals is an American contribution to our art form. Jamila Salimpour in particular is credited with creating and cataloguing a vast amount of cymbal patterns that are the foundation for most dancers today and the root of many more complex cymbal patterns that would be developed later on. These American dancers nerded out with veils and props as well but that’s a subject for another article…
There is no feeling in the world that compares to playing cymbals while you dance. You become part of the music. It is a difficult skill to learn and requires practise, as does any other musical instrument, but the rewards are so great. As belly dancers, finger cymbals are a part of our culture and heritage and it is up to us to preserve and develop them. A dancer friend of mine said to me recently “They’re too hard. Nobody in the Middle East plays finger cymbals anymore so why should we?” and this broke my heart. If flamenco dancers stopped playing castanets because it was just “too hard” I think everyone would agree that it would be a travesty and a huge loss to the art form.
Yet despite hearing this kind of disheartening statement on more than one occasion, I have seen a recent surge of interest in finger cymbals here in London over the last couple years and I am excited! There is a new generation of dancers here that are ready to take on the challenge and excel. I now incorporate finger cymbals into most of my weekly lessons and because of the enthusiastic response of dancers I have started running special finger cymbal courses at my studio in Brixton. My goal is to get dancers playing cymbals and loving it! If you are a belly dancer who has never learned how to play cymbals don’t wait any longer – the sooner you begin the better it is. If you started playing cymbals in the past but weren’t able to keep it up or find friends to practise with, this is your opportunity to start again and thrive. Let the Cymbal Renaissance begin!
Anna got the bellydance bug in 1993 and since then has studied with as many teachers and travelled to as many “bellydance” countries as possible. She found her mentor Suhaila Salimpour in 2010 and has focused her training on Salimpour Format ever since. She runs a dance studio in Brixton and sponsors workshops with Suhaila Salimpour in London every year as Suhaila’s UK representative.