Finger Cymbals and Raqs Sharki

What are Finger Cymbals?

Finger Cymbals have been an integral part of a Raqs Sharki (belly dance) performance for decades and perhaps longer.

Known as Sagat in Egypt and Zills in Turkey, these magnificent percussion instruments provide a unique musical accompaniment for a dancer. They can be used with live music, recorded music and even acapella. For American dancers, the use of finger cymbals was a requirement when this dance was featured in the night clubs in places like New York and San Francisco where there was a major influx of Middle Eastern, Greek, and Armenian cultures during the 60’s and 70’s. This even carried through to the 80’s and beyond.

How can I learn to play?

There are a number of class offerings available thru March 2024 at Atlanta Fusion Belly Dance Studios – my class is on Tuesdays at 7:30pm and Majda Anwar teaches a class on Sundays – check out for more information.

If you are not in the Atlanta area – there are likely class offerings in your area or you can look into classes online.

Where can I purchase Finger Cymbals?

I have a few recommendations for great finger cymbals. It is important to get good quality cymbals that will provide a clear sound, have the right dimension and weight for your hands. Below are vendors that I have personally bought from over the years.

Turquoise International – I use the Size B Oriental – 2 ½” but there are many other options and a varity of sizes.

Saroyan Cymbals – a plethora of options here. Very high quality! I have used Afghani style, Saroyan Pro, and Arabesque II. These are fairly expensive but worth it!

Suhaila Cymbals – these are actually made by Turquoise International specially for Suhaila. They come in 3 sizes.

How long will it take to learn?

First, be patient. It will take as long as it takes. There is no formula for how long it will take to get good at playing finger cymbals. The same can be said for learning Raqs Sharki (belly dance). It takes dedication and a lot of practice – focus on the journey rather than the destination.

The Journey – Baby Belly Dance Years

I just celebrated my 20th anniversary of walking into my first belly dance class and subsequently I have been reminiscing about my journey in dance and how a few things have really come full circle. One of those is being given an opportunity to perform with and liaison for Doug Adamz during TribalCon next week. For you young-uns out there, Doug Adamz the guitarists/violinist and songwriter who recorded music with the group Light Rain from the mid-seventies until the mid-nineties. Not only was this music adored by belly dancers, it was also used in an original work by Gerald Arpino of the Joffrey Ballet. But I won’t completely regurgitate his website bio – do a little googling on your own for more about the man and his music.

The first time I heard Light Rain’s music was in my classes with renowned belly dancer and restaurant performer extraordinaire, Layla Katrina, in the mid-nineties. You know, back when the internet was in its infancy, when we had to buy costumes and music from an actual live person and when we used cassette tapes to create our set lists. Taking those classes opened up such a world of beautiful things in my life.

Layla taught beginner classes in her condominium to a small group of ladies during the week and on weekends, would lead a more advanced afternoon class at the restaurant where she worked. We danced on gorgeous rugs surrounded by beautiful Moroccan decor. This class was attended by more advanced students, many of whom were working in restaurants at the time. I am sure that back in those days, about 90% of the dancers employed at restaurants were current or former students of Layla’s. It was wonderful to be surrounded by such talent in class.

belt with skirt draped the 70's way

belt with skirt draped the 70’s way

Going to her week night classes was more intimate but still felt just as other worldly. Her home was well appointed with Moroccan imports, lush rugs, tapestries and other Oriental decor as well as numerous pictures of her and her troupe. She displayed her hand-beaded costumes on several book shelves and often had one under construction sitting on an antique arm chair next to small boxes of beads and trimmings. I loved to arrive just a few minutes early so I could gaze at those lovely works of art, trying to imagine what they would look like when Layla danced in them. I would also imagine what they would look like on me – I mean hey, I was just starting out and needed to move past the rayon fringe. There was one costume in particular that caught my eye – the peacock pattern bead work was exquisite and the fringe was dense – I could not stop looking at it! It was style made famous in the seventies AmCab era, beaded bedlahs made by performers themselves, often paired with full draped chiffon skirts.

Layla and I became good friends, she was the reason I started restaurant work after all. Years later she had moved to Savannah and often needed a break from her regular dance gig and I would come down to sub for her. Each time I visited – I looked for that costume in her display and admired it as well as the others she had acquired from local vendors, or those she had hand made herself. After several years in Savannah, she decided to move again – this time to Hawaii. So as a result, she needed to thin her collection a bit – so I pounced on that peacock costume!  When I bought the costume, it was disassembled as Layla was in the process of refitting it. It needed straps for the top and extenders for the belt which thankfully was in two pieces. It sat in my costume display for nearly a decade – my how time flies.

When it was announced that Doug Adamz of Light Rain was slated to perform and teach at TribalCon, I secured a position as his liaison immediately. I also applied to perform, because how could I pass up a chance to dance to music I heard in my first belly dance classes all those years ago?  I chose De Ann’s Dream, named after the dancer that inspired Doug’s interest in Middle Eastern music back in the seventies. Of course in order to fully interpret the music and style appropriate – I had to get that peacock costume ready to go! I commissioned local dancer, Karmelita, to assist with straps and belt extender. In the meantime, I made a matching circle skirt out of green chiffon and a re-purposed from a veil (more on its back story in a later post) plus a matching Turkish vest. The pieces all fell into place!

I hope to place a video on this post of my upcoming performance with Doug Adamz and the TribalCon Orchestra! The show will be this Friday night (February 27th – more info on Thanks for reading!




Realizing a dream – hard work paid off!

Catherine, Me, Sheila and Layla Katrina in 1997. Call me 'skinny arms' Aziza Nawal.

Catherine, Me, Sheila and Layla Katrina in 1997. Call me ‘skinny arms’ Aziza Nawal.

Twenty years ago this month I walked into my very first belly dance class. It was at Georgia State University as part of their continuing education program. I lived in Lawrenceville, GA at the time so the drive was pretty far, but totally worth it. The instructor taught us core foundations of Middle Eastern Dance – looking back on her teaching style and movement vocabulary, I would say her instructors were from the 70’s and 80’s boom of belly dance in America. Great stuff. I have a special admiration for dancers performing in the U.S. during those years. I seek out their stories of performing in night clubs to live music during a time when the music and culture of Arabs, Turks, Armenians and Greeks was experiencing extreme popularity. I have heard some intriguing tales from Lee Ali and Cassandra about their days in the clubs including the transition from live music to mostly recorded music.

What has prompted this article is a realization of hard work and diligence that has really paid off! As I look around me now, I see that since I walked into that first class, a wonderful community of artists now surrounds me and enriches my life every day. Many of these wonderful souls I am honored to call mentors, students, colleagues and most of all – friends or better yet, FAMILY. Whether they are dancers, musicians, authors, seamstresses, painters, craft makers, welders or aficionados of visual and performance art – this community I live in keeps growing and growing and I gush with gratitude for being a part of it. I’ll quote my Facebook status from earlier last week so you can see my mindset:

Wow! What a night last night. I am still reliving it. I’d tried to savor every little moment so the memory would last. My troupe Banat Nawal was amazing, Samora and I “brought it” and introduced Issam Houshan in a spectacular fashion, my BDE sisters Charlie and Heidi produced a wonderful Tribal tribute to Issam. Then a dream came true to finally perform with Issam. We had worked together for a couple of days on the drum solo and classes and when show time came, I wanted to make it last. I cherished every moment – but it was over to soon. Having so many friends and my wonderful husband in the audience gave me strength. I mentally called upon my teachers – Cassandra, Zhaleh Fereshteh, Aziz, and Layla Katrina, to name a few – to guide me through. I was filled with so much love – this is why I do this thing called dance!

Yeah – I’m still high on that. Since then I have contemplated my journey as a dancer. One of my students and close friends said to me “80% of life is showing up”. Years ago when I was barely a teenager, I vowed to live my life to its fullest. I’ve been accused of being an ‘old soul’ – so that bit of wisdom “stop to smell the roses” inspired me early in life – before I might have become jaded and complacent. That said, some Oriental dancers (belly dancers) might dream of being on the national seminar circuit, touring internationally or performing in Egypt with an live orchestra. I have had these dreams too, and maybe some of those might still come true. But those things do not hold as much importance to me as building a community, making new friends and connecting with people through my artistic expression. This is what drives me – teaching, performing, rehearsing, choreographing and continuing to learn. It truly makes me happy.

Many event sponsors in Atlanta have made a concerted effort to bring quality instructors and top notch events to the area – making continuing dance education very accessible! Keep it up Amani Jabril, Faaridah and Ziah Ali! So proud to call these ladies my friends. They have also believed in me and inspired me through most of my journey but they have especially inspired me in recent years with their own accomplishments – nothing like watching those you love succeed.

Amani Jabril and Ziah – because of these ladies I am grateful to have performed with many talented drummers – Darbuka Dave, Faisal Zedan, Jonathan Gomes Derbaq and Carmine Guida. Thanks to Jan Sarhan and Danny Stern for recommending me to teach with Souhail Kaspar years ago.

Much of my gratitude goes to Faaridah who helped bring Belly Dance Evolution’s Alice in Wonderland to Atlanta last summer. Through that,  I was able to re-connect with Jillina and Sharon Kihara and especially Issam Houshan who I had first met over 10 years ago. He approached me about working together – who knew at that time the success Bellydance Superstars would have? So the years went by. Finally our time had come. Our first time working together was during the Suhaila Intensive at AFBD recently – we taught three workshops, and we performed a very special drum solo together as well. It was a pleasure to work with such a talented musician –  a real dream come true.   I am grateful for my mentors, friends and students who believed in me. I am overwhelmed with joy and amazement of the commitment my BDE sisters and students put into helping me create the show! Let’s relive some of that:

Here’s Banat Nawal featuring Dana, Diane, Malika, Kiki, Robyn Parks, Mara, Melissa, Jaki Hawthorne of Jahara Phoenix, Lara, Olivia, Hengameh, and Terri, performing to my choreography to Issam Houshan’s recording of  Negsem al Amar

Here’s Heidi and Charlie performing to their choreography to Issam’s recording of Path to Goa

Here’s me and the lovely dancer and fellow Belly Dance Evolution sister Samora performing to my choreography to Tabel ya Issam

Learning Choreography Part II

Fellow BDE sisters Charlie and Heidi who composed the 'bow' song

Fellow BDE sisters Charlie and Heidi who composed the ‘bow’ song

In my last post on this subject, I touted the importance of taking classes and workshops from great instructors. My experience provided great tools for learning choreography that comes with being part of a professional or amateur dance troupe. Choreography is also important to a soloist as well. I have been an improvised performer for most of my career but have found that this method can lead to stagnation. The ‘go to’ moves become over used, and I just end up boring myself. I have always enjoyed learning someone else’s choreography in order to expose myself to a different way of interpreting music, new combinations, all while exercising my brain and body.

But how does one effectively learn a choreography? In a workshop setting, it can be challenging – maybe there is no mirror, there are a lot of people to bang into, you can’t hear or even see the instructor. I have an advantage of height, so a lot of times I move to the edge or to the back. Of course if the teacher is one of my favs, I do take advantage of the shyness of other workshop participants and plant myself on the front row. A good workshop instructor should switch lines anyway and I am happy to move to the back.

Music is so important to my retention of a movement set. Without it, I go blank. Having that soundtrack gives me cues to what movement comes next. Maybe there is an interesting instrument to follow, a catchy melody line or a familiar drum riff. A music composition tells a story of sorts. Take the standard dramatic structure  – exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Choreography works the same way – especially in a megeance where there are several different rhythm patterns that inform specific movement sets. Outlining that story line will help you organize your own cues.

My fellow Belly Dance Evolution sisters and I had a tough time remembering all of the choreography for the Alice in Wonderland show. Our biggest challenge was the bow choreography, which was very long, at the end of the show and while the movements weren’t difficult, they were similar to other movement sets earlier in the show. On top of that, the formations were quite intricate. So a couple of the girls came up with a remarkably catchy song to guide us through. If it weren’t for that silly string of sentences. I would have surely had to excuse myself from that bow!

Years ago I had the pleasure of studying with Morocco. When she taught choreography, she would take you through a set of steps and then repeat it three times. Such a simple concept – it worked like a charm. Good instructors will use repetition to get your muscle memory activated.

Try to examine your own learning process. Do verbal cues help you remember what comes next? Does the music give you cues in the instrumentation or accents? Does repetition provide the muscle memory and training to improve upon your execution?  Perhaps all of these apply. One last tool I can mention that really helps is video taping your progress. You can see how your transitions look, how your form is holding up and if you happen to have your troupe mates with you, how well are you matching each other.

Hopefully this tidbit of info is helpful!

New Directions – Another Level

New Directions

I was a member of Awalim Dance Company from 2009-2013 and helped found the Awalim Apprenticeship program (Banat Almeh) with Director Ziah Ali. Once I amicably left the company for personal reasons, I still intended to teach classes and perform with my students. I planned to continue producing shows with Ziah, host my own shows and take part in various other performances in Metro Atlanta.


From Banat Nawal to Almeh to Nawal

Just before founding the Apprenticeship program, my student troupe was called Banat Nawal – which translates to “daughters of Nawal”. They were absorbed into Banat Almeh for any co-produced shows featuring students of Ziah’s and mine.

Now that I have separated from Awalim, I will resurrect Banat Nawal as the name of my student troupe. Students are still encouraged to continue their participation with the Banat Almeh Apprentices. This troupe will consist of any current student who regularly attends class, rehearsals and performs in a show with their classmates. This troupe is intended to promote camaraderie in a supportive environment.


Taking it to the “HNL”

I am ever inspired to improve my performance skills, by taking workshops, exploring new styles, and researching the legends. I have a philosophy that’s based on the recurring skit from Mad TV performed by comedian Keegan-Michael Key who portrays an enthusiastic delivery man who subjects celebrities to an unscheduled interview and frequently uses the term “taking it to the HNL” an acronym for his catchphrase “whole ‘nuther level” that expresses admiration for his guest’s accomplishments.

I wanted to find ways to reward my students with a job well done, provide more performance opportunities and creative outlets. Just having a student troupe did not seem sufficient to achieve this so I decided to form a troupe for advanced students to take them to a “whole ‘nuther level”.


What’s in a name?

My former official advanced troupe was Sawwah Dance Ensemble – members included talented dancer Gina Weatherman, Amira (KC Nelson), Yasmina (Ginny King) and special guest Amani Jabril. But I didn’t feel very empowered to use the name again – it meant something different to me at the time and I feel some things need to remain a memory. I tried to come up with another ‘original’ name. I got some suggestions from students. Still not inspired. Then I remembered a troupe of cute girls taught by someone I really admire and how she would proudly introduce them at shows.

Alima,  who “has established a reputation for vivacious solo performances in workshops, ethnic festivals, civic and charity events since 1978”, was the director of that troupe. I met her years ago when I was just a budding performer and immediately fell in love with her genuinely warm southern charm. She is an impeccable performer and I was always enthralled by her confidence, passion and sense of humor onstage. She had a small group of lovely students at that time who performed under the name “Mumtaz” which translates to “the distinguished” or “excellent”  in Arabic.  I loved that name!

Now years later, finding myself without a name for this fresh new troupe, I contacted her on Facebook  – I knew it had been a while since she had the troupe named Mumtaz so I thought – “maybe she wouldn’t mind if…”.

Thanks to Alima my new advanced troupe has a name! Troupe Mumtaz!


Please look for upcoming shows featuring Banat Nawal and Troupe Mumtaz! I am very excited about going on a new adventure with my students, taking them to the “HNL” all while growing strong bonds of friendship in dance.