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  • Lisa Lumina

Finger Cymbal Orientation: buying and playing

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

Welcome to bellydance class! If you're taking

Lisa's level one class, you'll want to add finger cymbals by the time you start your 5th month of class. Here's what to look for, and how to get three different sounds out of your cymbals.


Called Zill in Turkish, Sagat (or sajat) in Arabic, finger cymbals have been being made since at least when metal was first worked in ancient times. They are the oldest traceable part of our art form, and that is a big reason I think it's important to learn to play them. They also give you a hand on the wheel of your show if you ever find yourself dancing to a bossy band, and allows you to make your own music if the sound system goes out, or you just want to go busking. For many years playing finger cymbals was the mark of a professional, and in Arabic cultures it is still the case that anyone can dance, but a professional can play cymbals (and yes, even Egyptian dancers play finger cymbals. Check out my playlist proving it!). They help restaurant dancers let the audience know the floorshow was started, and will help you to learn the Middle Eastern rhythms, and develop a sense of the beat, in class.

Lisa has some cymbals you can borrow in class, but in order to practice at home, and to size the elastic to your fingers, you'll want to get your own. The first video has some tips for buying, the most important thing is that you like the sound of them, and they feel like they fit your hands.


Once you get your cymbals, either in the mail or from another dancer or festival, you'll need to size the elastic to your fingers. Make sure they are tight! You shouldn't feel pain after wearing them for a short time, but your fingers might be a bit blue if you've had them on for a whole show. I also like to mark the one sized for my thumbs, to make putting them on easier.

If you have the single holed kind, you can

just tie the elastic in a knot on the underside. Be sure to sew or tie on the inside of the cymbal, it's harder to access but will be less irritating to your fingers. Trimming the elastic keeps it from deadening the sound when you play. This video is from, since I forgot to include it in the video I filmed ^_^


Some more on the 1 vs 2 hole debate can be read here, in an article by Yasmin Henkesh. While you can find both types in "both" places, there seems to be more of a preference for single holed cymbals in Egypt, and the very large cymbals, called tourra have only seen with one hole (these are usually played by a male musician in the band, since they're a bit large to be played while dancing).

The video below shows the three main sounds you can get from your cymbals: the ring, the clap, and the tik.

When to hit your cymbals: Remember the way we divided the beat for shimmies into the down beat (1, 2, 3, 4...) the down and up beat ( 1 &, 2 &, 3 &, 4 &....) and then into 4 parts: 1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a.....). To play "running singles", alternate hitting on each of the parts of the beat, just like when we shimmy. You'll want to start this practice with a slower song to let your fingers learn what to do.

I personally ​play with the dominant hand method. Meaning that, since I am right handed, I (usually) hit my right cymbals on both the down and the up beats, and my left cymbals during the "e"s and the "ah"s. If you are left handed, you'll reverse this. I do it because I want the down beat to be stronger, and because my dominant hand is going to be faster and more responsive, since the off beats are more likely to be left out when playing (see the gallop, below) playing this way means I can let my non-dominant hand work less. Some dancers play with an alternating hand method, which is better explained with the gallop:

The most common pattern you'll hear, is just like running singles, but it leaves out the "e" from the count. So it sounds like "and, ah, ONE, __, and, ah, TWO, __" OR (for a right handed person) "right, left, right, __, right, left, right, __" OR (for a left handed person "left, right, left, ___ left, right, left, __". Dancers who play the alternating hand method will switch off throughout this pattern: "right, left, right, ___, left, right, left, __". I find this method confusing, as it relates to the music, but that doesn't make it wrong, just not a good fit for me. NOTE: while you might say "one, two, three" when hitting the cymbals, in reference to the number of hits you are making, it is not what is happening in the music, and it is incorrect to play a gallop as "one, e, and __, two, e, and, __" (although modulation and playfulness can come MUCH latter, once cymbals are mastered, and later in a set once you've established that you know the rules you're breaking).

This post is meant as an introduction for level one students. But if you want a sneak peek into level two, you can download the rhythms handout here. I will only caution you to not let yourself get overwhelmed by too much information. Take it one step at a time, but know there are more steps to be taken ^_^

Some places you can buy cymbals online (and they have sound clips so you can pick what you like) are:


Yasmin Henkesh


Turquoise International


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