Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 13
About Cymbals & a
Workshop Checklist
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column.
This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.

Revised for Gilded Serpent April 8, 2006

Deviating from my usual custom of fully developing a single theme, I would like to share a few unrelated commentaries and helpful tips.

Believe it or not, playing cymbals can be a real pleasure.  Playing them well can greatly enhance your dance performance.  Playing apologetic or offbeat cymbals can ruin your dance performance. 

Playing cymbals well does not necessarily mean playing millions of fancy patterns; it means playing in time with your musical accompaniment and tastefully mixing rhythmical variations, making a connection between the music, your feelings, and your cymbals. 

If you have any doubt about your ability to play in time with the music, ask a friend with good listening skills to check you out.  Put on a moderate speed 4/4 piece of music, most Egyptian music would do, and play your cymbals with even, alternating strokes right, left, right, left, etc.  Ask your friend to let you know if your strokes are fitting evenly between the beats of the music.  Repeat the same experiment with 4/4 music of various tempos.  When you and your friend agree that you are in time with the music with no irregularities in your playing then breathe a sigh of relief, enjoy playing your cymbals assertively, and skip to the next topic in this article or maybe on to see how you might help a friend with her cymbal playing.

If your friend reports that you are playing offbeat, then turn off the music and ask your friend to clap steadily at a moderate speed.  Try to fit two alternating strokes to each clap that is, a right coinciding with her clap, and a left half way between one clap and the following clap.  (Playing along with a tape recording of even clapping might be necessary if you are far from playing evenly.)  Put on a piece of music again after your friend agrees that you are playing within her clapped-out beats.  Ask her to clap on each beat of the music, counting one, two, three, four, as she goes.  You again try to play two alternating strokes to each of her claps.  After you do that with ease, then play the same music and ask her not to clap and you again play two alternating strokes to the beats. By this time, you should be hearing and mentally counting the beats.  If that doesnt work, then ask your friend to clap and count again.  I know this sounds tedious. 

It is a tedious task to retrain your listening abilities.  Concentration is whats called for, and these days we are so pushed around by multi-dimensional stimuli that even the simplest demand for concentration boggles our minds. 

When you are sure that you are listening well and playing evenly, try playing four alternating strokes to each numbered beat, repeating the procedure with clapping if necessary.  This is just an exercise; Im not suggesting that you play alternating strokes continuously while dancing.

If you determine that your listening skills are fine but you just cant keep up the speed you know the music calls for, your task is to build up strength in your hands and fingers.  To help you with this, Id like to suggest an exercise my friend Khadija calls race with the devil.  Play a fairly fast 4/4 piece of music, play four alternating strokes per numbered beat, pausing on beat four with only one right hand stroke on that beat.  Keep repeating that over and over, pausing on beat four.  When you can play that evenly, then play alternating strokes to the music for eight beats in a row, pausing with one right-hand strokes on the eighth beat.  When you can do this with ease, pause on the twelfth beat, later only on the sixteenth beat, at sometime playing the entire piece of music with alternating strokes without a pause.  When that comes easily, do this again to even faster music. 

If you find yourself playing with jerky strokes, then introduce more pauses.  Evenness is crucial.

If you find your listening skills are fine and your hands are strong enough to enable you to keep up with playing alternating strokes continuously for a good while but your problem lies in the area of doing all this while dancing what you have to do is work on simple cymbal and body coordination exercises.  Get as basic as you have to get until you have success at coordinating cymbal playing with body movements.  Begin by walking around the room with each step coming on one of the beats numbered from one to four.  Do this without musical accompaniment at first but a friend clapping or playing single strokes on a drum might help.  While walking around the room, repeat the above outlined exercises with alternating strokes and finally do the above to music.  When you can do this with ease, then keep alternating your cymbal strokes and vary your body movements, maybe step/hip combinations or simple undulations and later try it with shimmies.  Whenever your coordination falters, back up in the process and simplify your movements.  Again, what you are doing is retraining sections of your nervous system and it is tedious. 

Unfortunately, I dont think you have much choice about whether or not you want to work on such unexciting aspects of your dancing. 

Your credibility as a professional Bellydancer or instructor is questioned every time you play cymbals or dance offbeat. 

I might add that as teachers you owe it to your students to teach good rhythm until youre blue in the face from doing so, if thats what it takes.

Although not convinced that one person can really teach another about how to put on a successful event, Id like to share a checklist of questions which might orient you before you undertake the task of putting on an event.

  1.  Where do I expect to get my main support, locally, or from out of town?
  2. If from out of town, then:
    a. Would people want to make a trip to my town;
    b. Is there good transportation leading into my town;
    c. Are there reasonably-priced motels which I would recommend near the site of the event?
  3. If I expect mainly local support then:
    a. Am I a good friend of a number of local instructors whose events Ive enthusiastically supported so I could reasonably expect them to support my event bringing many of their students;
    b. Do I have any reason to believe that my big rival across town will let down her guard and send people to my event?
  4. Has my area already been workshopped and seminared to death recently?
  5. Are the talents of the person Im sponsoring highly acclaimed in the bellydance publications?
  6. Have I personally experienced the instruction and performance of the person I plan to sponsor, so that I can wholeheartedly recommend that person to others?
  7. Do I have the energy and imagination to come up with promotional techniques far more effective than the mere sending out of flyers?
  8. Can I honestly say that Ive demonstrated organizing skills, or should I hire someone else to handle the endless details?
  9. Do I have friends and family on whom I can count to work tirelessly by my side to supply the extra hands and legs necessary to make such an event successful?  For me to consider an event successful, it would have to combine inner satisfaction with financial gain that inner satisfaction that comes from providing a worthwhile experience for the participants, respecting the personhood of each?

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Roma dance usually brings to mind tambourines and skirt-swirling, but these images are mainly a fantasy.

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"...Know your rhythms! I have drummed for bellydance classes where the instructor not only couldn't clap baladi but didn't even know what it was..."

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