Zorba, Male Belly Dancer

Henna Design Guest Article: Henna Design
Cymbals and Their Influence on the Appearance of the Dance

By Janette Brenner.

Janette Brenner has been performing and teaching for over 45 years and has trained with Classical Middle Eastern musicians from around the world.

The history of cymbals called Zills in Turkey or Sagat in Egypt, dates back to the bronze age, when the ringing of two metal disc was used to summon the Goddess 'Cymbala'. If one could get the attention of a Goddess, imagine the effect you can have on an audience. This is, after all, their first impression of you. They hear you before they see you.

Once you have their attention, you can guide your audience through this very special and unusual music, directing their attention to one or more of the instruments or the music as a whole. Sound is a very powerful means of suggestion. What something 'sounds like' will influence what it 'looks like'. Cymbals played at a slower, half time will make your movement look slower. Played full time, cymbals will make the same movement look faster.. And even faster played double time. A consistent movement such as a shimmy or spin will look fast and even when accompanied by singles played on your cymbals. The same movement will appear broken when patterns are played. Change your cymbals and you will increase your repertoire.

Hold the finger cymbal in your hand with your fingers cup around it. Using your thumb cymbal, hit the finger cymbals on different spots from top to bottom. Notice all the different sounds you can make by hitting them in different ways.

Isolating the hands from the fingers


With your elbows up at shoulder level, bend your wrists so that your palms are facing each other. Begin a simultaneous wrist circle forward. Keep the elbows up. Bend wrists forward, then down (be sure the palms are facing away from each other and wrist if fully bent), then in and back up.

Begin playing singles, alternating from right and to left hand. Keep the hands turning in forward motion simultaneously. As you feel more comfortable and your hands are consistently moving together while playing singles, begin to pull hands apart until they are stretched out in both directions. Continue the wrist circle and singles and move arms in every direction you can reach. Move your arms in and out like a breath, inhaling as you expand and exhaling as you contract. Move your arms together and independently. Play 3 strokes on the beat, and pause for one beat, like a galloping sound. Repeat exercise while playing this pattern of threes. This exercise will develop your ability to use your hands while dancing and playing finger cymbal patterns. Please remember that this pattern is JUST AN EXERCISE. Playing only this to your music will drive your musicians CRAZY and confuse your audience.

Rhythms and Patterns

Middle-Eastern Rhythms were developed as specific expressions of life, each based on an aspect of our own humanity. Beledi, for example, represents our physical self, our grounded bodies, our toil, our survival. As a specific dance the word Beledi means country, the home, that which is popular.

All rhythms have a specific timing, number of beats, number of counts, accents, rests and a beginning and an ending giving a specific space of time. For instance Beledi has 4 beats in 16 counts {Note for the musically inclined: Here the term "counts" means 16th notes and/or 16th rests in a 4/4 time signature. -ed} To create a pattern in a rhythm, some of the counts are played and some are left silent. Two distinct sounds heard in a Beledi are the 'dums and tecs'. The drum is often a clay, hour glass shaped drum known as a Dumbek. The drummer will slightly cup the hand and hit the Dumbek in the center. The deep 'dum' sound is an accent or a main sound to highlight. The lighter 'tec' comes from hitting the drum on the edge with the fingers.

The strokes of the finger cymbals can be played but are not limited to, matching the hits of the drum thus enforcing the sound of the rhythm. Cymbals can also be played to match the course of the melody, as though your cymbals were your voice, you play them to 'sing along'.

The number of strokes you play in secession, can be dictated by the length of the sound you are hearing. Does it last for 5 counts? Or 7? Or 16? A possible way of playing a sound is right on the count through the entire sound. That would be full time. Another possible way would be to play twice as many strokes, double time. And yet, another possible way to play would be to accent off of the beat, syncopating the strokes.


Count to seven and play singles with your counting. Then, count to seven again and play as fast as you can from one hand to the other. Stop the sound of your cymbals by holding your cymbals closed after the last strokes. Repeat this exercise with different lengths of sound.

How to become a great cymbal player

Take 5 min each day to play with your cymbals:

  • 1st min: fast singles turn hands and moving arms.
  • 2nd min: alternating threes (RLR pause LRL).
  • 3rd min: fours (four strokes in the space of 3).
  • 4th min: Patterns (ex: 3-1-3 or 5-4-1-4 or 3-7-3).
  • 5th min: put on your favorite music and 'sing' along.
Do this every day religiously, and you will become an excellent cymbal player in no time!

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