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Zills in Space 



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    Ok, so now you've finally managed to become comfortable with the idea of playing your zills and dancing at the same time. You've got a decent grasp of the basic rhythms and you may even have a song or two you can perform. This may be a point where you notice your dancing may not be it's best when you play the zills. Have you noticed that your arms tend to look rather drab or robotic when you play them? Or maybe it's harder to keep the rhythm smooth when you move your arms from one position to another. There are a few reasons your comfort level changes when you move the zills through space. Hopefully this will help you become comfortable enough with your zills so that your arms and hands can still effectively accompany the rest of your body.

     The most important thing is to remind yourself that these little disks of metal clinging to your fingers are in fact percussion instruments. However, as a dancer, your job is a bit tougher than a musician's. Not only do you have to serve as an auditory embellishment to your music, but you also must maintain the grace and beauty of a dancer.  Imagine what would happen if a musician, let's say a violinist, was suddenly required to play while shifting the instrument from his usual playing position to his knee. Not only would this require an adjustment in his hands and in the way he held the instrument, but it would also change the sound from the musician's point of view. Luckily, the members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are not required to dance and play at the same time nor are they required to move their instruments around during a performance.

    There are a few reasons you might become uncomfortable when you try to move your arms while dancing with zills. First, there is the change in sound that occurs when the zills move closer to or further from your ears. Pick two of your favorite in-place hip movements. Strap your zills on and play a gallop pattern with one hand close to your ear and the other extended in front of you. Add favorite movement 1 while you continue to play. Do this until you are comfortable with the movement in both your hips and your hands. Now switch to movement 2 while simultaneously switching your hands so that the one that was closest to you at first is now the one further away and vice versa. Keep the movement of your arms graceful, as if you are performing. Do you notice a slight change in comfort as the sound changes from your perspective? Perhaps not a feeling of panic, but a point at which you pay more attention to what your hands are doing until they make the full transition?

    Now start with your arms framing your hips at your sides and play the gallop pattern. Do favorite movement 1 again. Then switch to movement 2 while moving your arms gracefully up over your head. Pay attention to the way the sound changes throughout the transition. You can adjust the level of these exercises by adding a new rhythm, changing the base sound (rings, clicks, or muffled) or changing the isolations you use. 

    Another factor to consider is the way the zills feel when you move your arms and hands around. Stand in your basic dance stance with your arms out to the side and your hands facing upward. Play the gallop pattern for a bit. Then turn your hands until your palms face downward. Do you feel the weight of your zills shifting? Try playing them with your arms up above your head and then down around your hips in a frame.

    Once you become familiar with these slight changes in your instrument's sound and feel using the above exercises, you can do the following exercises to further your skill.

   Zills in Space 1

Stretching Exercises

1. Find about an hour's worth of music. It doesn't all have to be zill worthy as this exercise focuses on moving the zills around and with your body.

2. Sit in a straddle position on the floor with your legs as far apart as you can get them.

3. Start out by playing the simple gallop pattern.

4. Keeping your back straight, do snake arms for 16 counts (in 4/4 time, 4 measures) or more. Be sure to keep your rhythm even and your arm movements smooth.

5. Now lean forward (keep playing) as much as you can and lean into the stretch. Hold this position for another 16 counts.

6. Continue the stretch by leaning over to your left and right side. Be sure to keep your rhythm as even as possible and in time with your music. Switch your arms from bent to straight during this exercise allowing the zills to travel to and from you ears.

7. When you feel comfortable with the gallop pattern, change to variations of the rhythm.

8. Add the zills to other floor stretches. Try to make these stretches different enough from one another to challenge you. Remember, in addition to stretching you must also keep an even rhythm going.


Now it's time to make a challenging transition. Get into a comfortable squat position or any position that will allow you to stand without using your hands. Continue to play the zills and slowly lift yourself into a standing position. If you like you can add an isolation on top of this. For example, say you you've just done a level change in which you bent your knees with hip drops. Now work your way back up keeping your arms extended, chest lifted and back straight (as you would in a performance). Let your legs do the lifting, not your knees.

Standing Exercises

1. This one is another variation of an already well-known stretch. Stand up straight with your legs a bit more than hips width. Begin to play the rhythm of your choice. Inhale and raise your arms up above your head. Then slowly bend forward bringing your arms out in front of you. Be sure not to use your back during this stretch. Keep your abs engaged and your chest lifted. Stop at a ninety degree angle for about ten seconds and continue to play. Then bend over as far as you can allowing you arms to drop toward the floor. You guessed it. Continue to play throughout this stretch.

2. Start out with a slight straddle. You don't want your legs so far apart that you feel a stretch while you are standing, but you will want to feel a slight stretch when you lean forward and to either side. Begin to play and play long enough to become comfortable with the rhythm. Do the "windmill" exercise. This is the exercise in which you start upright then perform a controlled rotation of your upper half to one side, then down, to the other side and back up. Let your arms follow your movement. Please be sure NOT to do this exercise if it causes pain of any sort.

Walk the Walk and Move Those Hips

Once you feel you can stand in place and move your arms with various isolations (the variations are endless), it is time to begin moving the rest of your body through space. Start in your basic stance and begin to play your zills. Then walk around your practice space. Start with a basic walk until you feel you have the hang of it.

Once you feel confident with walking do the following:

1. Walk for 8 counts.

2. Do a big, slow hip circle letting your arms follow your body in a swooping forward motion OR do a back bend with small snake arms. The smoother the movement, the more it will help.

3. Walk for 8 counts more.

4. Stop and do hip hits/drops with a nice frame.

5. Remember your options are pretty much unlimited.

   Now that you can move both your body and your arms as if there are no zills attached, try dancing to your favorite song. You may find it is much easier to listen to the music and let your body react to it without the discomfort of arm and hand transitions.


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