The Zulu Tribe and Dance

South Africa, 1969. Young Zulu men performing a traditional group dance.
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The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group in South Africa, numbering 10-11 million. They also live in the neighboring countries of Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Botswana. It is not the numbers that make the Zulu fascinating, but their cultural identity, and in particular, community dancing.

The dancing is done during a traditional Zulu ceremony by energetic men and women. It is believed that the dance started as early as the 16th century and remains core to the community to date. In addition to dancing, the Zulu have other interesting cultural practices that need to be explored. So, an in-depth look into these traditions and styles of dancing will help us discover their meanings and appreciate Zulus more.

Zulu Dance Basics 

A typical Zulu dance is characterized by hip and leg movements that follow a particular rhythm. Dancers are also fond of making big and large steps in which they pound hard on the ground rhythmically. Sometimes, the participants kick high above their heads before falling on the ground to jump up high and throw kicks again. A drum or different wind and string instruments normally punctuate a Zulu dance. In terms of structure, most dances comprise repetitive verses or choruses and rhythmic patterns to enable everyone (the audience and dancers) to follow and appreciate the movement.

Formations are also an important component of Zulu dancing, and they rely on the number of people performing, the movement, and spatial patterns. Retreats, advances, sideway movements, spins, ascends, and descends dictate the dance’s direction. At the same time, the eyes of the dancers give the dance focus, such as looking up, down, or over the shoulder. In the case of dances performed in ritual ceremonies, the participants have a tendency to move, kneel, or stand in curves. In contrast, team and wedding dances prefer forming single files or columns. This type of formation represents the conservative reality in a time where there is no beginning, middle, or end.

Role of Dance in Zulu

The Zulu people use dance to express their culture, power, and tribal loyalty as well as communicate with their ancestors. It also offers them a sense of social affirmation, enjoyment, and happiness. Different forms of dance assist people unfamiliar with the Zulu culture in learning about it and appreciating its importance. Every dance that the Zulu perform communicates a story or is used to mark an event. In a way, it recounts history, expresses emotions, celebrates rites of passage, and helps unite the community. Zulu dance remained untouched by Western influence possibly because it is viewed as a hallmark of Zulu identity. But do you know there are different types of Zulu dance with distinct messages?

Dance with Meanings

Dancing is an essential component of the Zulu culture and is one of the numerous customs that have been passed to generations over time. As such, most ceremonies among the Zulu are not complete without some form of dancing. These are some of the common dances in the community:

Ingoma Dance

Perceived as one of the purest remnants of Zulu culture, Ingoma is characterized by frantic dances, chanting, and high-kicking emotions. It is normally carried out by boys and girls during transition ceremonies like weddings, lobola (bride-price negotiations), coming of age, before hunts, or before battles. Girls wear short beaded skirts, are bare-breasted, and adorn their ankles with rattles made of seed pods (amafahlawane) to pronounce the high kicks. In contrast, boys wear cowhides to cover their genital area and backsides during the dance. Ingoma is meant to encourage community members to share experiences and value unity.

Indamu Dance

This is a traditional warrior dance accompanied by drums and whistles. During the performance, the participants lift one leg into the air and bring it down in tandem with the other leg with the help of their hands. They repeat the process while switching the legs and then lifting the second leg into the air and falling to the ground on their backs. The goal of the dance is to demonstrate muscular strength. Participants also aim to show their prowess in controlling weapons (spears and knobkerries) with mock stabs at imaginary enemies. Dancers normally wear full traditional regalia, including ankle rattles and headrings.

Reed dance

Mbabane, Swaziland - August 31, 2017: Umhlanga Reed Dance ceremony, annual traditional national rite, one of eight days celebration, young virgin girls with big knives machete go to field to cut reeds

Also known as the Mkhosi woMhlanga by the locals, the Zulu reed dance is an age-old custom that has survived for centuries. The ceremony is conducted yearly in September in the king’s palace in Zululand. Thousands of virgin girls from different parts of the country take part in this dance in the hope of finding an intimate partner. Part of the girls’ dressing includes short skirts, necklaces, anklets, bracelets, and vibrant sashes. The young women are required to dance for their king bare-breasted as part of the festivity. Each individual carries a long reed during the procession which they will deposit before the king. The reeds represent a deep mythical link with the Zulu’s origins. According to tradition, their original ancestor came from a reed bed so laying reeds at the feet of the king is a sign of respect for the Zulu custom. The reed dance is used to educate girls on the Zulu culture and promote celibacy until marriage.

Imvunulo

Unlike the other dances that are carried out by a group of individuals simultaneously, the Imvunulo dance is performed by a single participant. In essence, the activity features a parade where Zulu men and women showcase their traditional clothing. Notably, Imvunulo is also customary attire in this dance that signifies an individual’s place and role in the community. The sex, age, and title of a person determine the kind of dress they will wear. For instance, women wear beaded aprons and leather skirts during the dance while men wear goat or cattle skin to cover their loins. Pregnant women or those that desire to conceive wear leather skirts.

Isicathamiya

Isicathamiya is a type of Zulu dance where men or boys perform while standing in a straight line or arc. The dance, which signifies life in rural Zululand and townships, came about as a result of Zulu native beliefs in a communal lifestyle where each life of a member is valued. Even though the music the dancers make is balladic and contains lyrics addressing contemporary matters, the melodies are ancient. Examples of issues tackled are crime, AIDs, and migrant labor. The lead singer in Isicathamiya normally provides the rhythm for other dancers to follow.

Culture Beyond Dance

This iconic African ethnic group has a spectacular culture that is full of symbolism. Here are just some of the other cultural practices that unite the Zulu Nation:

Wearing of Colorful Beads

Three young Zulu women friends, dressed in traditional beaded Zulu garments, pose happily for the camera. The Zulu tribe is found mainly in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

As you interact with the community members, you will notice that beads are part of their attire. The beads come in different shapes and colors, and these characteristics carry unique meanings. In any case, the color worn by different people may show how they feel, their social class, and their spirituality. For instance, black beads symbolize mourning whereas green ones depict satisfaction or bliss in marriage. In other instances, beads indicate the marital status of a person, gender, the number of children one has, and the place of origin. Also, the time women spend making beads provides them with a good opportunity to develop strong bonds.

Traditional Attire

The Zulu people don’t wear much clothing. This choice of dressing represents their traditional beliefs and dependence on nature. The type of attire women wear signifies their marital status and age. It’s not uncommon to find young unmarried girls adorned in short skirts and beaded strings to portray their single status. However, once the women get engaged, they wear longer skirts and cover other parts of their bodies as a sign of respect for their future in-laws. Once married, a woman is required to include a hat as part of her clothing.

For men, the garments and accessories used mainly portray their fighting prowess. So, you will find married men wearing a warrior headband in addition to animal skin that covers different parts of their body albeit minimally. Interestingly, the skin worn can tell you what social status that Zulu man belongs to. For example, the royal family or heads of tribes are the only ones that use leopard skin.

Religion

In general, Africans are very spiritual people, and the Zulus are no exception. Those who still hold on to tradition believe in ancestral spirits who can intervene in their lives, for good or evil. They present different sacrifices and offerings to these spirits to appease them and receive good health, protection, and happiness. Magic is also a vital feature of the Zulu religion. Anything that is beyond human understanding is considered to have a spiritual origin. To help find solutions to these spiritual matters, the people seek the services of diviners (sangomas). These individuals normally summon ancestors to help them determine a problem, such as the cause of an illness.

Herbalists, on the other hand, are tasked with the duty of preparing concoctions to be consumed to influence ancestors to favor the people seeking spiritual help. Even though many Zulus have embraced Christianity, some are reluctant to abandon their ancestral beliefs. Therefore, they choose to mix their traditional customs and Christianity.

Rites of passage

Some of the most important rites of passage among the Zulu are birth, puberty, wedding, and death. Several rituals are conducted depending on the occasion. For instance, after childbirth, babies are washed with water containing special medicine to ‘strengthen’ them. Mothers and newborns are isolated until the umbilical cord falls off. This is because the mother is seen as ‘unclean’ and could possibly harm her ancestors and husband’s homestead. When it comes to the puberty ceremony, young people are separated from the community for a while. After that, they are reintegrated into society. This ceremony features dancing, the ritual killing of animals, and feasting. Once the festivities are over, the young adults are declared ripe for marriage.

Weddings are a big deal in Zulu culture and can take many forms and shapes. The groom slaughters a cow as a sign he accepts his new bride. To show that she is now part of her husband’s family, the bride puts money inside the cow’s belly. Other important activities during the ceremony include dancing, singing, giving gifts, and feasting. The marriage will be considered permanent only after a boy is born. Barrenness or birthing girls only is one of the biggest misfortunes for a couple according to traditionalists.

The Zulu people conduct ritualistic animal killings when a person dies to cleanse the environment, the relatives, and people who took part in the burial process. They also mix various plants and herbs to perform purification rites. As such, people use these concoctions to ward off evil, purify their hands, and cleanse the tools of burial.

Ubuntu

Ever heard of the spirit of ubuntu? This is a famous practice among the Zulu, and it entails being humane and treating others with dignity. Ubuntu challenges the idea that individuals can live for themselves and succeed using personal efforts by promoting a deep interconnectedness among humans. This philosophy has been a guiding force among the Zulu for a long time. As a result, it has encouraged them to help one another and live in unity as a community. Ubuntu is a very powerful force as it has spread to other cultures in South Africa and neighboring countries. In fact, the concept is now used across the world, especially in public discourse.

The role that dance plays in the Zulu community cannot be downplayed. Not only does this activity help the Zulus to mark important events, but also unites them and spreads happiness. The different types of dances also give them the chance to convey vital messages to the community, such as the importance of celibacy, roles, courage in war, and other life milestones. Other elements of the Zulu culture like ubuntu, rites of passage, and religious practices, cannot be ignored. Similar to dancing, they have helped the Zulu people maintain their identity for centuries. For this reason, the tribe continues to attract the world’s attention.

 

Edited by Sharon Rosenberg

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