Reed dance under scrutiny

Last year 50?000 girls attended the annual reed dance in KwaZulu-Natal, a ceremony in which young virgins are presented before King Goodwill Zwelithini.

The ritual is punted as “a colourful cultural celebration that promotes respect for young women and preserves the custom of keeping girls virgins until marriage”.

At this year’s Dance Umbrella, video and sound design artist Mocke van Veuren and dancer Nelisiwe Xaba have collaborated to produce Uncles and Angels, which explores the custom. It is not a respectful take, as the title might suggest, calling up images of demure maidens and grubby-fingered male relatives.

This year’s Dance Umbrella programme features an exciting lineup of new work, as well as some classics of South African contemporary dance.

The ritual involves older women examining the girls to see whether they are virgins before they can appear before the king.

Matter of honour
“I don’t know of any culture that celebrates the virginity of men,” Van Veuren said. “It’s socially embarrassing for a man to say ‘I have never had sex’.”

But for many women virginity is still a matter of honour.

At a coffee shop in downtown Johannesburg, the two artists said the production was meant to raise the issues involved and highlight the intrusion into a personal and sacred space by the “aunties” who checked whether the hymen was still intact.

The older women, most likely “victims” of the same process, were participating in a patriarchal ritual, which had drawn particular ­attention in light of the explosion of HIV/Aids. The practice was revived in the 1980s by the king to stem the rise of Aids.

But Xaba asked whether it had done anything to slow down the spread of the disease. “They must come up with stats and show us.”

Shifting the goalposts
Apart from being preyed upon by “uncles” wanting to tear the hymen, some of the girls engaged in all manner of sexual activity.

“They will engage in blow jobs, anal sex and yet still think of themselves as virgins,” Van Veuren said.

When we spoke about the production itself — I have watched the abridged eight-minute video — Xaba said: “It’s all role-playing and not meant to represent what actually happens.”

The production is both playful and serious and the two artists try to find the space in which technology and performance meet. It involves Xaba dancing on stage while her movements — jagged, exploded, delayed and amplified — are projected on to a screen behind her.

It is also part of Van Veuren’s long-running project of “breaking up our normal experience of time and space”. It would not be a bad idea if the ritual itself was broken up and discarded altogether.

Uncles and Angels will run at the Goodman Space, Arts on Main, on February 17, 18 and 19 at 6pm

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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