Belly Dance by ÂYA of Istanbul 
Performance, Instruction, Choreography

Belly Dance Performance, Instruction, Choreography

Finger Cymbal Etiquette



(That All Dancers and Audience Members Should Know)

by Âya of Istanbul, 2011


Eager to play your zills?  That's great!  However, you should be considerate enough not to play them during someone else's performance (unless it is a preplanned part of the show).  When a belly dancer is performing in a formal (for ex: theater) or informal (for ex: restaurant, party, or any place without an official stage) setting, it is considered bad etiquette for an audience member to play his/her zills.


What do you mean by audience member? 

That means anyone other than the actual costumed performer booked to be on the floor/stage for that particular event or time slot.  It doesn’t matter if she is a paid professional or a hobbyist; All performers deserve respect.


Is it okay for me to play zills if I am also wearing a belly dance costume?

No.  If you are not the designated performer for that event or time slot, you should not be playing zills during the performance.  (And on a side note, it is tacky and desperate looking to show up to another dancer’s gig wearing a full on belly dance costume without a cover up.  This is especially true for a professional dancer as the look of desperation and doing whatever you can to get some attention makes one less, rather than more “marketable”.  Of course, this does not include a belly dance inspired ensemble such as a coin sash, harem pants, etc. Also, it does not apply to “dress up” situations such as Halloween or Dragoncon.)

 Belly Dance by Aya,

Why is it such a big deal if I play zills during someone else’s performance?

Because for a genuine belly dancer, zills are not simply fashion accessories or noise makers.  They are part of her performance.  A good dancer uses her zills for a variety of reasons including but not limited to: interpreting the music, improvising, accenting nuances within the music, emphasizing her movements, getting her audience to focus, changing the mood, drawing attention to herself, controlling the crowd, joking around with and entertaining audience members, etc.  Therefore, you can understand how it can be distracting for audience members if they hear competing “chings”.  This lessens the impact of the performer’s musical interpretation.


Often, when a belly dancer is performing in a more casual setting (a place without an official stage), people don’t understand that it is still an actual performance that deserves respect.  I recently went to a Flamenco show where all the dancers and musicians were performing on a raised stage with theater style seating for the audience.  What if any of the audience members (who don’t know the musicians) took out a guitar and started playing it along with the performing musicians without being asked?  If this had happened, I’m sure people would have been shocked and probably would have seen this as a sign of disrespect.  Please remember that just because a performer is not on a raised stage, it does not mean that her/his performance is any less worthy of respect.  I have seen terrible performances in some very formal and glamorous settings.  I have also seen some of the most beautiful and meaningful performances in some of the most casual and dumpy places. You simply cannot judge the quality of a performance by looking at the type of venue.


Does that mean it’s acceptable to play zills if the dancer is not using them during her performance?

No.  Playing zills as well as not playing them depends on how the dancer chooses to interpret the music.  For instance, there are many pieces of music which I choose to not play zills to because they may overshadow certain musical elements. 


What if other audience members are also playing the zills?  Doesn’t that mean it’s okay for me to play too?

Just because other people are rude or don’t know any better does not mean you should go along with them.


Let’s say I’m at a restaurant or party and the dancer has finished her performance.  She is now just casually dancing around with audience members.  Is it now okay for me to play zills?

No, because any time a good dancer is still in costume (and not wearing a cover up), she is still performing.  For a genuine belly dancer (who is also an entertainer), this is often the most significant part of her performance.  It is often the part when the people are most entertained and the part of the evening they are most likely to remember.  A skilled dancer will make it look like she is having a great time as she is just casually dancing around (Unfortunately, the less skilled dancer who is oblivious to the crowd can also look the same way J).  However, this is not necessarily the case.  Skilled dancers know the importance of interacting with their audience which may include giving special attention to individual audience members.


But I have a dancer friend that says she doesn’t care if audience members play zills when she is performing… 

Some people also don’t mind if you spit on them.  That does not mean you should go around spitting on people.  It is still bad manners.  And if you are a classy person, you will practice good etiquette in any situation.


I must confess that when I first started playing zills during my performances, it did not bother me if audience members played along as long as they were on beat.  It was only after I became a more experienced dancer that I realized how significant zills can be if a dancer knows how to use them.


So does that basically mean that I should not play zills if another dancer is playing them?

No, not necessarily. There may be exceptions.  Some examples are drum circles, jam sessions where dancers and musicians get together, or parties where there is no “official” performer.  There are also situations where the audience is actively encouraged to participate by playing musical instruments that are handed out them.  I’ve been to Middle Eastern night clubs that do this.  Such places usually have excellent sound systems that drown out any noise the audience makes.  Therefore, only the dancers and musicians on stage can be heard.  All the noise the audience makes is minor in comparison and therefore not distracting to performers or audience members who are focused on the show.

Thanks for reading and happy zill playing!

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