What Is the Royal Zulu Reed Dance?

by Lena Freund
The Royal Zulu Reed Dance is named for the reeds that the girls cut and present to the Zulu king.

The Royal Zulu Reed Dance is named for the reeds that the girls cut and present to the Zulu king.

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The Zulu Royal Reed Dance festival -- "Umkhosi woMhlanga" in Zulu - is a cultural festival that takes place every September in Zululand, in South Africa's state of KwaZulu-Natal. The festival lasts four days and celebrates the purity of the Zulu nation's young virgin girls.

The Dance

The young virgins' dance is led by Zulu princesses. The girls leave their breasts uncovered, but cover their lower backs with brightly-colored woven skirts. Dancing is an important part of Zulu tradition; in the Zulu nation, dancing expresses happiness and is performed at all major life cycle events. The reed dance serves the purpose of not only introducing the young Zulu women to their king -- and vice versa -- but also of allowing the young women to meet and mingle with Zulu female royalty. Every year, thousands of Zulus travel to attend this festival; the diversity of crafts from different Zulu areas is displayed in the clothing and jewelry worn by the girls.

Reeds and Virginity

This festival is named for the reeds that grow by the local river. As part of the festival, the Zulu nation's young virgin girls cut reeds from that river and bring those reeds to the king. Legend has it that if a girl's reed breaks at any point in this process, then she is not a virgin. If her reed breaks, then she and her community are publicly disgraced.

Virginity and Practicality

The Zulu king also uses the reed dance as a chance to discuss social and health problems such as HIV. Given that the HIV rate in South Africa is the highest in the entire world, placing a high premium on virginity until marriage also carries this practical consideration.

Controversy

During the Zulu Royal Reed Dance festival, the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini chose his youngest wife from among the virgin girls who brought him reeds. Though theoretically this festival is supposed to promote respect for young women, according to researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles, this aspect of the festival has been criticized, since a girl may be made a wife at a young age and without her consent. Detractors might also argue that a broken reed cannot be an indicator of a girl's virginity; this is similar to the "bloody sheet" method used by some Muslim and Jewish families to determine a woman's virginity on her wedding night. While a Jewish or Muslim woman might be punished for this, however, there is no mention of a punishment for a Zulu girl if her reed breaks.

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