Monday, January 7, 2013

Similarities Between The Venda Python Dance & Black Sororities Probate Line Formations

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents videos that suggest similarities between the Venda (South African) female initiation dance known as the python dance and the very close contact processional formation used by some historically Black Greek lettered sororities' probate groups when those groups enter the performance area for their probate show.

Definition of probate in the context of sororities & fraternities: A probate show introduces new members of a sorority (or fraternity) to other members of their sorority (or fraternity), to other "Greeks", to family, friends, and to other onlookers. For historically Black sororities and fraternities, probate shows heavily involve the performance arts of stepping and singing/chanting.

This post is meant to point out the similarities in these vertical line formations, and not to assert that the Venda dance was the source for this type of probate processional formation. That said, I believe that it's quite possible that the South African Venda female initiation dance might have been the inspiration or one of the inspirations for this historically Black sorority vertical line formation.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic purposes. The portion of this post-including the videos- that refers to the Venda python dance is re-published on my zumalayah blog at

All copyrights remain with their owners.

I'm not sure if there is a standard name or any name for the commonly performed historically Black (African American) sorority probate (new members) entrance march which is the focus of this post. However, that very close contact vertical line formation is the same as or very similar to that which is described for the Venda people's "python dance" at Domba initiation rituals. Here are information about the purposes of that initiation ritual & description of the python dance itself:
"The Domba is a pre-marital initiation, the last one in the life of a Venda girl or boy. The chief or sovereign will 'call' a domba and preparations are made by the families for their girls to be ready and to prepare what’s necessary to attend the ceremony (entry fees for the ruler, clothes and bangles).

Historically girls used to stay with the chief for the whole duration (3 months to 3 years) of the initiation; nowadays because of schooling, girls only spend weekends at the ruler’s kraal.

This rite of passage was attended by both girls and boys after each individual had previously attended other separated initiations dedicated to one’s gender; Vhusha and Tshikanda for girls and Murundu for boys (the circumcision done during this rite has been introduced by Vhalemba). Since the missionaries decided that mixing males and females in the same ceremony was immoral...

Various rituals are particular to the Venda and certain aspects are kept secret and not discussed with westerners, however, it is known that the python dance, conducted at the female coming of age ceremony (iconic to the Limpopo region) is usually where the chief chooses a wife...

Girls and boys dance fluidly, like a snake, to the beat of a drum, while forming a chain by holding the forearm of the person in front. Once a wife has been chosen a set of courtship and grooming rituals take place over a number of days.-snip-
To clarify, female and males perform the python dance separately.

Additional comments about the python dance that are performed at the Domba is found below the video that is given as "Video #1" in this post.

Two of the YouTube videos of that dance (given here as Videos #1 & #2) show the female in the front of the line with one or both of her hands held out to suggest a snake's head. The faces of the females in the line are expressionless and their eyes are closed. Each woman behind the woman at the head of the line lays her head on the back of the woman in front of them. The impression I got from the dance that the woman were very tired and were slowly walking forward in their sleep. Occassionaly, the right arms and then the left arms of the entire group rhythmically undulate in a synchronized manner as the group slowly proceeds across the floor.

Judging from current YouTube videos of historically Black Greek lettered sororities the line formation described above but without the undulating arms appears to be commonly used as the entrance procession for most Black Greek lettered sorority probates. Although I'm not certain of this, judging from YouTube videos (admittedly a very unscientific sampling), the sorority that appears to use this locked arms less often than the other three historically Black Greek lettered sororities is Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. The names of the other three historically Black Greek lettered sororities are given in the video section below.

I've not reviewed many videos of the five historically Black Greek lettered fraternities to determine if each of those organizations have a similar close contact formation for their probates or their other members. However, I came across this video of a similar formation by members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc:". In this video the men stand very close together with locked arms and without moving away from their spot. The first man in line doesn't fold his hands in a triangle position, and the men after the first person in line don't lay their head on the person in front of them.

Video #1: Domba

bigbluemeanie, Uploaded on Nov 9, 2006

The famous Domba initiation dance of the Venda tribe of Southern Africa
Here are two comments from this video's viewer comment thread:
filato22, 2010
you can say that again its more zululized than venda. proudly venda
bigbluemeanie, 2012
..."Domba was the third and final phase in Venda girls' initiation, which should have been attended after a girl had been to vhusha and tshikanda. It took place every three to five years at the head-quarters of chiefs and certain senior headman, and lasted for about one year. Its importance to the Venda was marked by the use of the bass drum (ngoma), which was also used in tshikona, the Venda national dance. There were a number of special rites and shows associated with domba…

Video #2: UMOJA - The Spirit of Togetherness Part 2

Mrbobodigital, Uploaded on Mar 23, 2011
The Domba dance is from 2:17 to 3:50 of this video.

The description of this dance given as a subtitle in this video is "initiation dance for young women when they reach womenhood".

Video #3: Domba La Africa

dombalaafrica, Uploaded on Feb 26, 2010

Traditional Dance Group based in Soweto. Founded by the Late Co-founder of the Soweto Gospel Choir and Musical Director David Mulovhedzi
The Domba dance is performed in this video from .53 to 1:01 and the video ends with a still photograph of that dance.

Video #4: venda dance

nkosiafrika, Uploaded on May 13, 2010

great va venda mothers proudly dance @a wddng in soweto south africa

(Videos of the four traditionally Black Greek lettered sororities are featured below in the order of their founding, with the oldest sorority presented first.)

Example #1: Towson's Alpha Kappa Alpha Probate 2012

TowerlightVideo, Published on May 9, 2012 [Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland]
AKA, Alpha chapter probate 2010 at Howard University part 1
(.36 – 2.50) for another way that AKA probates proceed into the performance area. The women hold the hands of the person in front of them and behind them (down by their waist) with their heads held down.

Example #2: Delta Sigma Theta Lambda Psi 2010 Probate Part 1: Intro

emoang, Uploaded on Apr 11, 2010 [University of Florida]
According to several commenters on viewer thread, sorors in front in white are doing what is called a "duck walk"

Also, click (.23-.41) for another example of a Delta Sigma Theta, Inc probate formation that is similar to the South African Venda python dance.

Example #3: Zeta Phi Beta Pi Epsilon Chapter Fall 2012 Probate UTK PART 1

wally2774, Published on Oct 21, 2012

Zeta Phi Beta Pi Epsilon Chapter Fall 2012 Probate UTK [University of Tennessee, Knoxville]
Click for another example of this close contact vertical line procession from a Zeta Phi Beta chapter.

Example #4: SSU SGRho Probate 2K10

shannonkhoward54, Uploaded on Dec 14, 2010
Click for an example of a Sigma Gamma Rho vertical line procession in which the probates move in a style which is similar if not the same as a stroll (party walk). Besides the half mask that the probates wear, the only differences that I can see between this formation and a party walk is that the probates may be bent down lower then usual as they stroll, and the probates are holding the hand of the person in front & in back of them (arms distance). The first probate is led by another sorority member.

[Warning: The recorded music that the group is strolling to includes some mild profanity & the "n word".]

Traditionally, Black Greek lettered fraternities also appear to have a formation in which they stand close to the person in front of them and sing or chant. However, in the videos I've seen the men lock arms but don't rest their head on the back of the person standing in front of them, nor do they hold hands with the person in front of & behind them. Click "Zoom Zoom" (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity) for an example of this type of close fraternity vertical line formation.

The very close line formation symbolizes the group's unity. The ability to act as one body that is demonstrated by the group's synchronized movements symbolizes the cohesiveness that was forged as a result of the individuals' experiences of becoming members of their group. Also, the group's moving forward with their eyes closed and/or with their heads resting on their sister's back and being led by one member represents the group's trust in each other, and especially their trust in that lead sister. Furthermore, the group moving forward inspite of their tiredness highlights the importance of the goal and the value of perserverance to reach that goal..

It's likely that the Venda python dance also has those meanings in addition to the cultural meanings which were given in the above quote about that dance.

Thanks to all the performers featured in these videos. Thanks also to the authors & commenters whose comments are featured in this post and thanks to the uploaders of the featured videos.

Also, thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Here's a quote from an online "Greek" forum that further defines the word "probate" as it relates to sororities & fraternities:
    "Let me give a quick explanation. Just wanted to let you know about probates. I "crossed the burning sands" (another term that Greeks use sometimes in order to explain the final crossing or completion of the Membership Intake Process) in Spring of 2002. As it was explained to me, the purpose of the probate or "neophyte show" (neophyte meaning new member) is to come out to the Greek community at large and showing them that you are now officially a member of said sorority or fraternity. When I had my probate, I had been a member already for a month (we had to practice for the probate after induction) so I could have chosen NOT to have a probate and STILL would have been a member of my sorority, however, I chose to have one with my line sisters and it was quite successful!"
    PrettiPoodle402, (02-19-2003)
    By the way, that blogger's screen name identifies her as a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

  2. Here's a link to an online article that provides some information about the three phases of initiation for Venda girls: vhusha, tshikanda and domba:

    This article is from the research of John Blacking who "lived amongst the Venda of the Sibasa district of the Northern Transvaal..." between May 1956 and December 1958.

    This additional page of that same article provides considerable descriptions of the Ndayo dance which was performed by two girls at a time: