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What are Zills?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Zills are small cymbals which are worn on the fingers of belly dancers; they are known as zagat in Arabic. While dancing, the dancers strike their zills to accentuate the dance or to help establish a clear beat; zills are also used when dancers work the room for tips and complements, in situations where this is expected. Many dance supply stores carry a number of styles of zills, and they can also be purchased through companies which specialize in Middle Eastern musical instruments; because zills are sometimes used in Western music as well, some Western supplies may carry them too.

By tradition, zills are worn on the middle finger and thumb of both hands, creating two sets of cymbals. A skilled player can create a range of sounds with zills, including clear ringing tones, clacks, and clicks, creating a versatile array of sounds to supplement a dance with. Depending on the sound, zills may be small and dainty, producing a quiet but high-pitched ring, or they may be heavier and larger, producing deeper tones which will carry all the way to the back of the crowd.

Learning to play zills is rather challenging, and many dancers have trouble at first. Playing the cymbals on their own is relatively straightforward, but playing them while dancing can add a new element of difficulty. Most dancers say that learning the play zills simply requires lots of practice, and that dancers should get into the habit of always moving when they practice their zills, so that they do not get accustomed to the ease of sitting and playing.

Most zills are made from brass, and they are made in the same way they have been constructed for thousands of years. Examples of zills from before the birth of Christ are on display in many museums, and as paintings and other works of art attest, before zills, dancers used bones, sticks, clappers, and various other tools for percussion. The rhythmic beat of dance music lends itself well to playing the zills, especially when the dancer and musicians are well attuned to each other.

Many people associate the sound of zills with Middle Eastern music in general, not just belly dancing, and they are sometimes added to musical compositions to give them an Oriental theme. Another form of zills can be seen in castanets, the percussion instruments used in traditional Spanish dance. Flamenco is actually a descendant of the belly dancing tradition, a legacy of the Muslim conquest of Spain.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By burcidi — On May 23, 2011

They say that the history of zills go back more than three hundred years. I have read about it in history books about the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans used very large zills that were stroked together with each hand carrying one. It was part of the official band of the empire as well.

Even before that, it existed in Asia by different names, like cheng and zench.

By discographer — On May 22, 2011

I think that the use of zills probably spread with gypsies. Because I heard that they spread belly dancing in the Middle East as well. I have mainly seen belly dancers use zills, aside form a famous singer called Tarkan who used zills and danced in one of his music videos.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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