Rhea entertains at the Taverna
Athena in Oakland CA.
Spiro, the owner, is in back with hand to chin.
of Daughters of Rhea
I used to
hear the rhythmic ring of my mother’s cymbals wafting through
the air of Greece’s ancient city as I made my way home alone from
the Athens by Night Taverna where she danced every night
of the year. It was the '70s, a time when the Plaka boasted
numerous highly amplified rooftop discotheques and tourist taverns,
and as I scuttled through the tiny streets, Anita Ward’s “Ring
My Bell” from one rooftop blended oddly with the fast-paced strains
of a bouzouki playing “Never on Sunday” from another.
all this cross-cultural cacophony soared my mom’s perfectly paced
zills, right left right, right left right, right left right
left right left right. If you put me in a room blindfolded,
I could distinguish her playing from any other dancer on earth.
has an advantage: her natural sense of rhythm is impeccable.
Without having to think, she can play up beats, down beats and
all around beats to any music in the world. When I took
her to see the Boston production of Stomp, she was the
only audience member clapping along in the perfectly timed silences.
You could see the performers craning their necks up to the balcony
trying to catch a glimpse of the only person following their exhortation
to clap along by clapping in syncopation, or in flamenco-style
double time. I wasn’t surprised that for a few brief moments
and with her bare hands, Mom managed to steal the show from the
Stomp performers. If she had brought her finger cymbals
along that day, she probably would have been dancing down the
auditorium aisles to the stage for an impromptu show.
My mom could
attract notice and put on a great show even if she danced mute
in a potato sack. But with her finger cymbals on, Mom’s
playing is as strong and sure and her shows are riveting.
While she can always use her cymbals to blend in and accompany
musicians, in performance she often uses them as every dancer
should: to accent her dancing chops. Even at age eight,
walking home with the Acropolis lit up to my right and already
three blocks away from the site of her show, I could perfectly
picture Mom’s spins, shimmies, arms and footwork, all based on
the patterns of her flying fingers.
their best, finger cymbals – also called “zills” (Turkish nomenclature),
“sil sil” (Arabic), or “sagat” (Egyptian) – are natural extensions
of a dancer’s arms, her fingers and her personality. They
are the perfect accent to her lifting, flashing hips.
fine musicians at Taverna Athena in Oakland, CA. George
on bazooki waiting for George on trap drums to finish one
of his wild and unpredicatable drum solos
They are her
best allies in commanding the attention of a packed, noisy restaurant,
taverna or stadium. And they are empowering – with
cymbals and no other music, a dancer can be completely self-sufficient.
You can shine by accompanying and playing off of the best musicians,
or you can make the worst musicians sound better -- or at the
very least, make sure you rise above their horrendous playing
with your sure zills.
I am lucky.
I can’t remember actually having to “learn” to play finger cymbals.
As objects, they and the sounds and rhythms they produced were
always around me growing up. Just as my (then) two-year
old daughter knew exactly how to put them on and brandish them,
what fingers they should be on (middle and thumb), and where the
elastic should lie (tight over the cuticle), I came by this information
naturally. Finger cymbals were just one of the many aspects
of our family trade, along with sequined costumes, swords, drums,
tsiftetelli music, liquid black eyeliner, trays and candles, veils,
capes, stage presence, and how to get along with restaurant owners
and musicians without compromising your integrity. When
it came time for me to don the cymbals and do my own show it wasn’t
I had always
known the story Mom told her students of how she learned to play
them when she was studying with the legendary Jamila
Salimpour, walking to and from her secretarial job
on the Berkeley campus.
down into her coat pockets to mute the ring, she played her cymbals
in time to her footsteps. For every right-left-right, she
took a step.
tink-a-tink, the high soft pitch would drive dogs nuts and
send them howling after the trim young woman with the long dark
hair making her way to the electrical engineering and computer
she played, the faster she walked. Practicing that way made
it possible to coordinate playing the zills with actual body movement.
Its not enough just to sit on your butt with your eyes closed
and play along to the beat of music on your stereo; you have to
be able to dance and play at the same time, with your arms up
in the sky, down at the hip, or outstretched to the side, and
at all points in between. And you can’t furrow your brow
on stage thinking about how to coordinate it all, it has to come
Melina & Piper Duet
I didn’t play
them as a child, dancing in the context of mom’s act. Nor
did I have them on my fingers in the early teenage year when I
was dancing duets with my sister Piper.
I finally had to play them when I was thrown into dancing alone
for the first time. I was sixteen, and Piper was in the
hospital. Mom was dancing at several jobs in Plaka herself,
and Piper and I were regularly dancing at about five places a
night. It was not even a question; I had to cover our gigs
belly dancers have no health or job insurance. You don’t
dance a couple of nights, and another dancer will gladly take
I had never
wanted to do a show on my own before. I was perfectly happy
being Piper’s partner and doing whatever she told me. She
designed our matching costumes, shopped for fabric, and sewed
our skirts. She occasionally forced a needle into my unwilling
hands to sew a few jewels on a bra, but I usually managed to get
out of such tasks by sheer incompetence. Unlike Mom, with
whom I perfected the art of entertaining improvisational dance,
Piper made me practice choreographies with her during the day
and gave me my first real lessons in dance technique. With
Mom I never actually thought about what I was dancing, I just
danced freely, mimicking her moves. Performing with Piper
required a bit more discipline, preparation and training.
We worked out our whole show in advance: how we would enter the
stage, who would do which parts (veil – Piper; Candles – me; campy
“men” routine – both of us; choreographies – together).
Piper is still my favorite partner.
had prepared me so well that when I was forced into flying solo,
I was ready to hold my own for an entire 25 minute show.
she was laid up, I took over all our gigs so we wouldn’t have
to lose any of them. And as a soloist dancing in tavernas
packed with hundreds of tourists – the Athens by Night had a 600
person capacity, for example – you have to play finger cymbals,
or you have all the impact of an ant.
I wore Piper’s
set of cymbals that night, the ones with Nefertiti etched along
the rim. My fingers stretched her elastics a bit, and so
she gave them to me. During my first show I played a basic
right-left-right rhythm, and when I tired or faltered with the
rhythm I sometimes didn’t play them at all. By the fifth
show of the night I wasn’t thinking about them at all, just clickety-clacking
my way around the stage as if I’d been doing it all my life.
By the final show of the night I was also beginning to see some
of the benefits of performing alone. I made more money and
didn’t have to share any of my tips with Piper. They were
all mine, and there were a lot of them. It was around this
time that Mom and Piper began to expect me to pay for my own lunches.
I was no longer the cute wonder kid belly dancer. I was
a grown-up wage earner soloist. From here on in I would
have to pay my own bills and buy my own zills.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Circle Dance by Melina of
Daughters of Rhea
circle is a perfect, democratic & unending shape, the shape
of an energized community, the shape of this lovely round planet.
Rhea: Greek Flavor and Flair
Article by Rebecca Firestone, Photos by Carl Sermon,
& Laikis Orientale and Greek Folk Dance Workshop sponsored
by Ma*Shuqa, held Saturday, August 19, 2006, at the Empire Buffet
restaurant, in San Jose, California
Rhea’s Travel to Syria,
Part 5 –Sex and the Single Girl by Rhea of Athens
Trials and Travails of a Lone Female Traveler
My Vision of the Desert Archidance
by Piper Reid Hunt, Ph.D. (Daughter of Rhea)
I had heard about trance dancing before, but had never
seen it in an authentic context.
Randa Kamal in Cairo The Photos
of Susie Poulelis
fortunate to travel to Cairo on business in April '06, and managed
to take some time to see a few sights and, at least, one dance
performance: Randa Kamal at the Marriot Zamelek's Empress Nightclub
Bellydance in '70s Berkeley: Cedar
Sposato's Photo Archive
was a member of Masha Archer's Troupe...
The Photos of Susie Poulelis,
Sunday March 18, 2006, Rakkasah Festival, Richmond, California
shines at 9!