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Rhea entertains at the Taverna Athena in Oakland CA.
the owner, is in back with hand to chin.

Gilded Serpent presents...
Finger Cymbals
by Melina
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. 

Above 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. 

Rhea 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.

At 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. 

Actually, 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 that hard. 

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. 

Hands thrust 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, 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 sciences department. 

The faster 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 out naturally. 

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 alone. 

Plaka belly dancers have no health or job insurance.  You don’t dance a couple of nights, and another dancer will gladly take your place. 

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.

Piper 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. 

While 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.

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