Beginner's Guide to Zils

Zils—aka finger cymbals—are an integral part of all styles of belly dance. They add a dynamic musical accompaniment to any belly dance performance. Whether you’ve just been introduced to zils in your dance class or you’re interested in picking up a pair, this guide is for you!

Where to Buy Zils

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Our go to source and top recommendation for zils is Saroyan. They have a great selection of designs that are suitable for anyone from beginners to pros. It’s good to keep two things to consider when purchasing zils: size and tone.

Size

Finger cymbals range from tiny children’s size to huge cymbals used mainly by percussionists. If you’re new to playing zils, smaller zils are typically easier to use—they’re lighter and therefore easier to move quickly and to get a crisp tone with. Larger zils are louder and have more of an impact, so many performers use them for maximum impact. However, larger zils are more fatiguing to play because of their size and weight making them not the best choice for beginners.

Tone

The tone of each style of zils varies depending on the size, material, and design. When selecting your zils, make sure that you like the tone of the zils! You can compare tones of Saroyan zils here. If you’re planning on performing with a troupe, you may want to consider how the tone of the zils will mesh with the rest of your troupe’s zils. Some tones can sound a bit dissonant together, while others compliment each other beautifully!

How to Get Your Zils Ready For Playing

Once you have your zils in hand (pun intended), you’ll need to attach elastic to them. The elastic threads through slots in the zil and then is secured by pinning or sewing the ends together. Most zil sets come with elastic in the package, however you can use any braided elastic you’d like that fits in the zils’ slots.

  • Consider choosing elastic that matches your skin tone, rather than the standard black or white that comes with most sets of zils. This allows you to wear zils without cutting off the line of your hands. Elastic that matches your skin is especially fun if you want to try to hide that you’re wearing zils until you begin playing them!

  • Many dancers choose to safety pin their elastic together rather than sewing right away. The thought behind this is that you’re allowing the elastic to stretch out a bit before committing to a particular size. However, it’s easy to forget or neglect ever sewing the zils if you start with safety pins. Also, if you place the pin on the underside of the zil so that it is hidden, it will affect the tone and clarity of your zil playing.

  • If you’re a non-sewer or are unsure about how to set up the elastic, check out this comprehensive video tutorial for sewing zils.

  • A cool no-sew method uses rolled fabric hair elastics threaded through the zils. A full tutorial for this method can be found here. Sadly, the elastics previously used for this method have been discontinued. These elastics are similar but may not work as well (we haven’t tested them yet).

Learn How to Play Zils

Now that your zils are ready to go, it’s time to play them! The best way to learn is through hands-on instruction, so we won’t attempt to teach you via this blog post ;) World In Motion’s Fundamentals of Tribal Belly Dance class teaches the basics of playing finger cymbals, and Intermediate ATS®/Tribal Belly Dance helps student advance and refine their skill with zils. So grab your zils and head to class—you’ll be zilling like a pro before you know it!

OtherEmily Beamanzils, Beginner