Student Interpretation → Elise Carson

  • Dance Staff
  • Dance Staff
  • Bridal Walking Stick

Ndebele and Ngwane Staffs

This staff, called an ithelefomu, was created by the Ndebele people of South Africa. Beadwork is created exclusively by women in the Ndebele culture, though men may have been responsible for creating the staff itself. Each glass bead is strung onto a thread by hand, which makes this process a very tedious one.

The use of dark colors reflects the 20th century availability of such hues. Earlier beadwork displays brighter hues. The earliest beadwork was predominantly white, with a few colored beads thrown in as design accents. Beads have been acquired through trade with Europeans since colonization.

The resemblance to a telephone or telegraph pole is not accidental. The Ndebele were drawn to geometric forms, especially symmetrical ones. Telephone pole motifs appear not only in their beadwork, but also on the murals painted on their homes. Part of the interest in this particular shape stems from the Ndebele’s own lack of electricity and telephone lines.

The Ndebele used this dancing staff in ceremonial activities like weddings and initiations. In some cases, it was also believed to conduct energies from the spirit world, giving the dancer special sight or power.

Dance Staff

Dance Staff (ithelefonu)

Ndebele People
South Africa
Dance Staff (ithelefonu)
20th Century
Wood, glass beads
Gift of Caroline Popper
2004.33.9

Brides carry scepter-like staffs in wedding ceremonies, as do initiates, raising them in the air as they dance. In the past the staffs were covered with purely white beads, but this one includes the dark patterns preferred in the mid-20th century. Telephone pole motifs for staffs were popular in the 1960s to signify the bride’s aspiration for a modern lifestyle, as well as the status and wealth associated with acquiring modern luxury goods.

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