A group of virgin girls on their way to the Zulu Reed Dance

Anthropology: The Cultural Significance Behind the Zulu Reed Dance

The Zulu Reed Dance is a ceremony that the Zulu nation celebrates in September annually in South Africa, because the maidens sing and dance for the nation. This they do to hold  on to their culture of preserving purity, traditional dance, music, arts and craft. The Zulu tribe in South Africa take pride in their culture and traditions. Owing to the threat of globalization and modernization, the Zulu tribe celebrates uMkhosi Womhlanga ( the Reed Dance ) in order to teach the younger generations about their roots.

Undoubtedly,  uMkhosi Womhlanga is a three-day event that showcases the Zulu traditions like dance, music, arts and craft. But most significantly, the event celebrates girls and young women for keeping and upholding their virginity. In fact, the purpose of the event provides girls from around the villages, cities and townships of KwaZulu Natal an opportunity to prove and celebrate that they are still virgins.

The Driving Force Behind the Success of the Zulu Reed Dance

The girls determined to make the Zulu Reed Dance a success

The Zulu Reed Dance is one of the ceremonies that involves the whole community . It unites men, women and the younger generation. Because of this unifying factor, the king, King Goodwill Zwelithini is the center of attraction. In 1991, when he re-introduced the ceremony to his people, the world took notice. For this reason, the beauty of the ceremony lies in the force behind its success.

In this instance, the girls play an important role in the success of the Zulu Reed Dance. Likewise, these young and old girls are no stranger to social media temptations. They are like any other girl except that they hold on to their virginity with all their might. Irrespective of the ups and downs teenagers face, nothing distracts them from attending the next Zulu Reed Dance.

Therefore, the girls look forward to the next Zulu Reed Dance because the ceremony gives them many opportunities. For example, meeting new people, re-uniting with old friends, fashion, singing and dancing. But most significantly, coming together for a common course, which is celebrating virginity.

Preparation for the Zulu Reed Dance

Maidens queuing for virginity testing ahead of the Zulu Reed Dance

In any case, trust is an issue and everyone has to earn it. Now, with the Zulu Reed Dance approaching, the girls have to undergo virginity testing. In this instance, preparations happen three weeks before the main event. Virginity testing includes girls as young as seven up until a late teenage stage. And sometimes it goes further to the early twenties as long as the woman is not ready to give away her virginity or hasn’t found a suitable suitor.

However, during virginity testing, which takes place in all eleven District Municipalities in KwaZulu Natal, the girls gather around for the tests. They queue outside the hut or room where the virginity testing takes place.  Respectively enter one by one for a full inspection. By virtue of the Zulu nation, an old wise woman inspects the girls to verify the state of their virginity before they can participate in the Zulu Reed Dance.

According to these wise women, various factors verify virginity.  These include the presence of a tight hymen, tight muscle tones, firm buttocks and breasts, plus a flat abdomen. Other factors include innocence in the eyes and the way the girl walks.

Excitement Around the Ceremony

Although the girls queue for testing, they also use this time to anticipate the joy they will experience at the ceremony.  As the result of the anticipation,  they sing and dance in order to get in the right mood whilst in their respective different locations. In this regard, the theme of virginity testing becomes ‘ We are going to the Reed Dance ‘.

Pre-Events of the Reed Dance

The princess is wearing the cow's gallbladder on her head.

As the sun shines on Wednesday morning at the king’s homestead, the family gather together to prepare for the Zulu Reed Dance. Consequently, in the Zulu culture, it is important to speak with ancestors from time to time for guidance and protection . In this regard, after the family meeting, the men slaughter the cow. They do this to inform the ancestors about the dance ceremony that will take place within three days.

While slaughtering, they carefully cut out the cow’s gallbladder, empty it and leave it in the sun to dry. Meanwhile, the king chooses the princess to lead the ceremony.  The criteria the king uses to choose a lead princess amongst princesses relates to nature. In this instance, the princess who is last to have her menstrual period before the main event, is the leader. In addition, the princess wears the cow’s gallbladder on her head to symbolize she is the chosen one.

Connecting Ancestors prior to the Reed Dance

Maidens bathing in the river prior to the Zulu Reed Dance

After the ritual ceremony ahead of the Zulu Reed Dance , the lead princes and the local maidens take a journey on a bus. The purpose of the journey is to extend friendship between kings. In this instance, the girls visit King Biyela in oBuka village. In return, King Biyela slaughtered a goat to welcome the maidens and a cow as a special gift for the lead princess. Similarly, men cut the cow’s gallbladder, empty it and dry it. Then the princess wears the second cow’s gallbladder to emphasize she is the chosen one.

At this time, the lead princess and maidens feel at home and a song erupts from the girls to symbolize joy. The next morning, on Thursday, the lead princess, maidens including maidens from Buka, headed to uMhlathuze river bend to bath. Whilst bathing, the lead princess cut the first reed with a tassel and put a mark on it for identification. Meaning, the first reed belongs to her.

Nevertheless, the girls return to King Biyela’s homestead singing and dancing. On Friday morning, they pack their belongings and head back home to KwaNongoma where the main event is underway.

The Maidens Arrive in Numbers for the Ceremony

Maidens wearing beads around their waists arrive at the Royal Palace

Finally, Friday ascends and the land of KwaNongoma turns into a spectacle. Young women start arriving in numbers from different locations . Upon reaching Nyokeni Royal Palace, the maidens register their names on the attendance register. Usually, the maidens travel with the matron from different regions. These matrons conduct virginity testing and frequently guide the girls on good behaviour.

Due to the number of maidens arriving for the Zulu Reed Dance,  organizers hired a marque for accommodation purposes. For this reason, the marquee turns into a house of jubilee as the girls sing and dance excitedly.

Leading to this, on Saturday morning, the girls go down to the Ntsonyane River to take a bath. After bathing , the maidens proceed to oSuthu Royal Palace to pick up their reeds. Culturally,  the lead princess is the first one to pick up the reed.  Notably, she picks up the special reed with a mark on it.

The Parade Towards Nyokeni Royal Palace

Maidens Marching in line to the Royal Palace

In light of the current mood amongst the maidens, they all take hold of their reeds and walk with pride to the Nyokeni Royal Palace. And this means the Zulu Reed Dance is underway because the girls are already marching. As a matter of fact, there is a significant meaning the Zulu nation attaches to the Zulu Reed Dance.

To cut the long story short, Once upon a time in the land of KwaZulu Natal,  a group of maidens who lived at the Royal Palace, went out to fetch firewood. While busy gathering firewood, a group of men persuade these maidens to try to steal their virginity . Undoubtedly, the maidens put in a fight and won. Then, they abandoned firewood and instead went to the river to cut reeds, pile them like firewood. On their way to the Royal Palace  they were singing hymns( amahubo) to narrate the story of victory.

Likewise, as the maidens parade, they remember this story and individually start to talk with the Reed in their hands. In this instance, the Maidens plead with the reeds to give them strength to preserve purity until the next Zulu Reed Dance. Clearly, the Zulu Reed Dance provides the maidens with a sense of belonging. And also gives the Zulu nation a chance to marvel at their roots of preserving purity until the girls reach maturity.

The Maidens Lay Down the Reeds

The lead princess laying the special reed before the king

In the same fashion, the maidens take a steep two-kilometre route that leads to the presentation space in Nyokeni Royal Palace. As usual, the maidens sing, chant and dance all the way until they reach their destination. In Zulu culture, the lead princess is the first one to lay the special reed in front of the king, her father.

After laying her special reed,  all the other maidens give each other a chance and one by one lay their reeds in front of the king. For many girls, it is an honour to be that close to the king. Nevertheless, after the laying of the reeds, the maidens go outside to prepare for the next phase of the Zulu Reed Dance.

The King Addresses the Maidens

The King making a speech at the Arena

After the laying of the reeds section is over, the king and his entourage move from the Royal Palace to the Arena. In this instance, the regiment escorted them. When the entourage arrive at the Arena, ushers guide them to the VIP marquee. Then they take their seats in terms of different hierarchies. Such as the royal family, chiefs, herdsmen and their entourage, and dignitaries from the government and rich entrepreneurs .

Likewise, the king arrives at the Arena and gets out of his car. As he walks inside the Arena, all the men take off their hats and stand up. While all this is happening, an imbongi ( praise singer) recites and sings the king’s praises.

Once the king takes his seat, his entourage follows, the last being the nation. This orderly manner of doing things around the king signifies respect. After waiting a little while, the king stands up and addresses the nation, especially the maidens .

Undoubtedly, in his speech, the king thanked the maidens for abstaining from sexual intercourse until they matured. And also for making the dreams of their ancestors come true by contributing to the realisation of the Zulu Reed Dance. In particular, he acknowledges that without the girls’determination, the Zulu Reed Dance would fail.

The Last day of the Reed Dance

Maidens wearing colourful beadwork which has a significance in the Zulu Reed Dance

First thing in the morning on Sunday, the girls wake up and go to the Ntsonyane river for a bath. Afterwards, they wear their colourful traditional attire made of beads. It is important to note that traditional beadwork plays an important role in the Zulu nation. For instance, the Zulu nation use beadwork for communication. This kind of communication, which is symbolic in nature, stems from way back. And still continues as seen in the Zulu Reed Dance.

Although the maidens play around with beadwork to suit the 21st century, they stick to the basic rules. Which, in this instance, has to do with shape, pointing position and colour. Firstly, all beadwork must be triangular in shape, which stands for the father, the mother and the child.

Secondly, the pointing position provides information about gender and marital status. For example, the triangle of the beadwork of the maidens faces up. To signify that she’s an unmarried girl. In addition, the colour of the beadwork has a significant meaning. And the Zulu nation uses a maximum of seven colours. For instance, 1. black stands for marriage, 2. blue for faithfulness and hope, 3. green for contentment, 4. pink for high standard and promise, 5. yellow for wealth, 6. red for strong emotions and love and, 7. white for purity, spirituality and true love.

Saving the Last Dance

Maidens showcasing their different dance moves

Once the maidens finish dressing up, they ascend to the Arena where they dance and sing for the king and the nation. Undoubtedly, different groups from different regions showcase their dancing abilities, eye-catching beadwork and melodic voices. It must be noted that these showcases during the Zulu Reed Dance have nothing to do with competition.

The main purpose of the showcases is to foster relations amongst girls and boost confidence. But most importantly, to showcase the Zulu culture and traditions. For this reason, the maidens take pride in uplifting their culture and traditions through dance, song and beadwork.

Owing to the mood of the last day of the Zulu Reed Dance, the king invites his guests, the maidens and the community to join him for a feast of meat. In this instance, everybody honors the invite and ascends to Machobeni in Ngwavuma. After the festivities , the king bids farewell to everyone present and the Zulu Reed Dance comes to an end.

Cultural Significance of Ceremonies in Anthropology

The beauty of ceremonies has various factors in the livelihood of society. These factors include, among others, unity and culture. Consequently, the Zulu Reed Dance brings people together and unifies them under the same umbrella of culture. During these ceremonies, the Zulu nation get an opportunity to revive old friendships and meet new friends. As a result, they get a sense of belonging and pride. But most notably, the beauty of the Zulu Reed Dance lies in the jubilation of the nation. Whereby traditional dance, music, art and craft take precedence. And a place and time where people showcase culture and revive themselves for the sake of remembering and preserving their roots.

Sadly, King Goodwill Zwelithini has since passed away on 21 March 2021. And owing to the pandemic, the attendance has decreased immensely .  This year Amazulu King Misuzulu Zwelithini led his first Zulu Reed Dance and the purpose of this year’s ceremony was mainly to honour his father, King Goodwill Zwelithini.


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