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What Are Finger Cymbals?

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  • Written By: Andrew Kirmayer
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 12 April 2014
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Cymbals are percussion instruments usually played with a set of drums. They can be played to a rhythm that accompanies the beat of a song. Smaller varieties called finger cymbals, often used by dancers, are small disks made of metal which are typically worn on the thumb and middle finger. Usually attached to the finger with an elastic band, the instruments are many times played by belly dancers, as well as stage and restaurant performers of Middle Eastern music. They are called sagat in Arabic, zang in Persian, and zilleri in Turkish, so many dancers refer to the cymbals as zills.

Finger cymbals have been noted to have been played since the year 500 Anno Domini (A.D.) and are a general part of traditional dance in Egypt. Dancers usually integrated them into performances until the 1980s, when it became common for a dancer to hire a musician to play percussion. If a dancer allowed someone else to play finger cymbals, it was often a cultural sign of success. In the United States, many performers follow this tradition, although some who master the cymbals may play them regularly.

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Different sizes and colors are typically available for finger cymbals. They usually come in either 2 inch (5.2 centimeters) or 2.5 inch (6.5 centimeters) diameter types; the larger versions are more often used by professional dancers in loud settings like nightclubs. The smaller cymbals are typically better heard in a smaller, quieter setting. Some of them have a small hole in the center, while many have two slots in which an elastic band can fit through. Those with the slots are usually more convenient to control, because the band typically holds the instruments to the finger more firmly.

Brass finger cymbals usually have a gold color, while silver alloy ones are also available. The sound is typically not affected by color; the choice is usually dependent on personal preference or what matches a particular outfit the dancer wears. Brass types can degrade in quality over time especially when exposed to air. They are often stored in sealed plastic bags to limit air exposure and, if the cymbals become tarnished, then they can be freshened up using vinegar and salt.

Finger cymbals have often been played in American tribal music. Modern dancers may also mix styles of music from movies, jazz, ballet, and other genres in a performance. There are sometimes classes for dancers to help them learn how to play the cymbals, but it is usually recommended to practice to music with a steady rhythm, such as Egyptian pop or techno.

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