The Traditional Zulu Dance

Written by johnalee johnston
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The Traditional Zulu Dance
Ankle bracelets are a pillar of many traditional Zulu dances. (tribù image by lino beltrame from

For the Zulu people of South Africa, dance is a metaphor for life. The Zulu have used traditional dance for centuries, not only to commemorate pivotal life moments, or rites of passage, but also to distinguish social status and roles within the tribe. Through dance, the Zulu tell the genesis and journey of their clan, bridging generational gaps in a unique form of storytelling.

Movements and Attire

A wide array of stomps and kicks categorise almost every traditional Zulu dance. The Zulus use props such as ankle rattles, shields, headdresses and belts to differentiate social class and societal roles. Both males and females wear limited clothing, which consists predominately of cowhide and bare chests adorned with garlands of beads. Bead colour can signify such things as geographical location, "rank, contentment, spiritual love, and marriage" according to Stan Schoeman, author of "Eloquent beads, the semantics of a Zulu art form."


Everything worn in a traditional Zulu dance has symbolic meaning. Zulu women create elaborate beadwork that unites all dance rituals. The colours of beads, along with their arrangement and geometric shape, dictate the underlying language of the dance. Though worn in every dance and in daily attire, beads with the highest level of symbolism are worn as messages to the opposite sex during courtship dances.

The Traditional Zulu Dance
The colours of beads worn in traditional Zulu dance hold rich symbolic meaning. (Colourful beads image by Vladimir Melnik from

Rites of Passage

Every September at the Enyokeni Zulu Royal Palace in northern KwaZulu-Natal, thousands of Zulu maidens gather for the traditional Reed Dance celebrating virginal purity. During the ceremony, the maidens place river reeds, collected during the dance, at the feet of the king, who then chooses his brides. The dance is centuries old, beginning with King Shaka Zulu as a symbol of unity with his people. According to Nomagugu Ngobese, virginity tester and founder of the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organisation, the personal significance of the ceremony is a "sense of belonging" for maidens.

Metaphor in Movement

Zulu history survives through dance in a similar fashion as cultures built on oral tradition. This has prompted King Goodwill Zwelithini to declare, "Everybody needs to take responsibility for training others." The dance ceremonies express a wide array of personal and communal thresholds. Dances are traditionally exuberant, and most are heightened by drums, chants, and songs. Occasion for dancing may include the arrival of visitors to the village, the birth of a child, a wedding, a war re-enactment or a king's inauguration.

Political Outlet

Many of the traditional Zulu dances have historically revolved around social issues of the time. Issues weaving their way into dance today include AIDS, migrant labour work and crime which seek to promote global sensitivity and social awareness. The dances are usually performed by males in the village and involve a level of athleticism. Zulus incorporate ancient tribal melodies to "stomping feet and staccato rhythms" in modern-day performances, which according to spectator Babalwa Shota, "make the stage vibrate."

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