Music and Dance Cultures with Deep Historical Roots

A dance performance in South Africa.
Xhosa woman in a colorful garb.
Kicking the foot high up in the air to a drum beat.

Dancing, quite naturally, is something that South Africans of all backgrounds enjoy. With that said, certain black peoples may have a closer, or a more well-known, relationship to their traditional dances than other South African ethnic groups do. For this reason, we will describe three black peoples with strong rhythmic cultural heritages: the Zulus, the Vendas and the Xhosas.

Zulu dance

The Zulu people, for starters, honor their warrior tradition by performing war dances, carrying spears and shields. These dances feature little bursts, as if to attack, and dance off-like elements. Both men and women participate, and just as in other varieties of Zulu dance, in war dances, kicking your feet high up in the air is common.

For the Venda people of the north of South Africa, male pipe playing and female “python” dancing are recognizable characteristics. Both cultural manifestations are performed in large groups, with the python dance requiring women to line up and dance in uniform movements mimicking a snake.

Xhosa dance

In both Venda and Zulu dances of the types that were just described, women can sometimes be seen dancing bare-breasted. This is different from the dances of the Xhosa people in the South African southeast, where women generally cover up more. Xhosa dance, furthermore, could be described as less intense than warlike Zulu dance, but it is still very energetic and rhythmic.

Colors and decorations

Moving away from the dancing itself and continuing with dance-related practices, common among both male and female dancers and across black South African cultures is to wear colorful outfits and adornments. Colors and decorations, in fact, carry so much cultural significance that they can be just as important to a performance as the dancing itself. Customary, too, for a wide variety of black peoples and cultures is for dances to be accompanied by some combination of simple drum beats, hand clapping and song. These melodic sounds were some of the first dance-friendly sounds that existed in the world, and their continued use today speaks to the historical significance of black South Africans’ dancing rituals.