After traveling throughout much of the world, I find very few things to be more fascinating than New Zealand’s culture dances. Much of New Zealand’s rich traditions and culture come from the Maori tribe, including traditional dance. In this article, we’ll explore two important Maori dances, the Haka and the Poi, as well as the Waiata-a-ringa. We’ll also tell you where you can watch these unusual dances when you visit New Zealand.
The Haka dance is a very popular New Zealand culture dance. Although Haka is a generic term for Maori dance, it normally refers to a specific type of challenge or war dance, or possibly a welcome dance. This group dance may also be called Kapa Haka. Kapa means “form a line” and Haka means “dance”.
Origin of Haka Dance
The Maori legend describes the origin of the Haka as a celebration of life. It was first performed by Tanerore, the son of Hine-Raumati (who embodies summer) and her husband, Tama-nui-te-ra, the sun god. On hot summer days, Tanarore would dance for his mother, causing the air to quiver. His light, rapid movement was the foundation of all Haka.
The Haka became the Maori tribe’s war dance, performed by their heroes before a war. The dance aimed to intimidate their opponents by showing their strength, power, pride and unity. It also prepared their warriors mentally and physically for battle. However, the Haka was also performed when groups came together in peace.
Originally the Haka dance was restricted to the men of the tribe, but now it is performed by women also. In fact, there are some women-only Haka dances.
Elements of Haka Dance
In dancing the Haka, the hands, feet, legs, body, voice, tongue and eyes all play a part in blending together to express a message. Actions usually include stomping of the foot, protrusion of the tongue, and rhythmic body slapping to accompany a loud chant. Haka dancers must also master the side-to-side movement of their hands, known as the Wiri.
Facial expression is an important facet of Haka, as it helps to emphasize a point and demonstrate the performer’s passion or ferocity. For men, it means widening their eyes and stretching out their tongue or baring their teeth. For women, it involves opening their eyes wide and jutting out their chin. Although these expressions might appear intimidating, they aren’t necessarily a sign of aggression and may just show strong and deep-felt emotions.
The words of a Haka often poetically describe ancestors and events in the tribe’s history.
Haka Dance Today
The Maori use the Haka as a way for their people to connect with their culture. This is especially true for those Maori who have been raised in the cities and have lost their connection or ties to their tribal upbringing.
Non-Maori people are welcome to learn the Haka also. However, it’s important that you respect the culture and traditions behind the dance. Be sure to learn the words and understand the meaning behind the chants, the significance of a particular Haka and what you are trying to express when performing it.
Today, the Haka is used during ceremonies to welcome important guests, and for special occasions, like birthdays, graduations, weddings, and funerals. Kapa Haka is very common in schools and is also being offered as a subject in universities.
The Haka is performed by the New Zealand men’s and women’s rugby teams. The men’s team, the All Blacks, use the Ka Mate Haka. The women’s team, the Black Ferns, performs a Haka called Ko Uhia Mai, which means “Let it be known’, and was composed by Whetu Tipiwai.
Styles of Haka Dance
There are several styles of Haka dance and here a few examples:
Ka Mate originated in the 1820’s from a time of war and tribal conflict, and it was associated with New Zealand rugby as early as 1888. The original All Blacks rugby team began using it in 1905, and they still perform it today. It was composed by Te Rauparaha, leader of a tribe from the North Islands, as a celebration upon escaping from his enemies. The performance involves chanting a movement without synchronization. Since it does not use weapons, it is not considered a war dance.
Kapa O Pango means “Team in Black” and was first performed by the All Blacks in 2005. It was invented as a complement to the Ka Mate as a way to celebrate homeland and culture. Kapa O Pango is a ceremonial dance designed to build a person’s confidence.
Taparahi is the most commonly performed type of Haka today. It is a ceremonial dance where the performers stand in lines, and it involves intricate movements and no weapons.
Powhiri is a Haka of welcome interspersed with specific roles for men and women. It includes elements such as the challenge, women’s call and prayers.
Peruperu is a war dance with weapons performed face-to-face with the enemy. It involves high leaps off the ground with legs tucked under the body. Generally, spears or clubs are used as weapons in a Haka dance.
Tutu Ngarahu is performed by a party of armed men before a battle and involves jumping from side to side.
Where to See Haka Dance
In addition to watching the All Blacks or Black Ferns play rugby, here are some other places where you can witness a live Haka dance:
Auckland Museum – This museum tells the story of New Zealand, its place in the Pacific and its people. It has pre-eminent Māori and Pacific collections, significant natural history resources and major social and military history collections.
Ko Tane – Based at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, in Christchurch, it is the South Island’s premier Maori cultural experience. It offers a fun and interactive experience in a natural bush setting.
Te Matatini – A national competition is held here every two years where people around New Zealand compete against one another.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds – Aotearoa New Zealand’s most important historic site, where in 1840 New Zealand’s founding document was signed: the Treaty of Waitangi.
Whakarewarwa Thermal Village Tours – A wonderland of Maori Culture, geothermal activity and traditions. Guided tours and cultural shows are provided.
The Poi dance is another popular New Zealand culture dance. In the Maori language, the word “Poi” could have several meanings, such as choreography, dancers, or music. However, the most direct translation of “Poi” is “ball tethered on a string”. For this dance, Poi are normally tethered weights.
Poi dancers are usually women, since they must be able to dance with graceful and beautiful movements. The dancers rotate the Poi around their bodies in rhythmic and geometric patterns to depict the story of a song.
Origin of Poi Dance
The Maori tribe are known as the originators of the Poi dance. The Poi itself was originally made from harakeke (flax) and raupo (wetland plant). It is said that the Poi dance originated from the men of the tribe who used the circular movements to condition their wrists to help them handle their weapons.
The Poi dance was also used by the women who practiced weaving. The women then decided to exhibit their improved skills from practicing Poi in the form of a dance. The Poi dance became a symbol for the Maori’s crusade against the Europeans to win back their ancestral land in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Elements of Poi Dance
In the Poi dance, each performer skillfully twirls one or more Poi in circular movements and in perfect unison with the others. The fluid dance steps involve difficult hitting techniques and flowing movements. Sudden direction changes are achieved by striking the ball on a hand or other part of the body, and the noise creates a percussive rhythm.
The sound of a moving Poi can be an integral component in a composition. It is supposed to replicate the sound produced when a bird flaps its wings. Each Poi dance illustrates a story from the Maori folklore.
Poi Dance Today
These days the Poi is made of plastic, paper, or loomed fabrics. There are different variations of Poi materials such as Glow Poi (the ones that are made of LEDS or glowsticks), Meteor Poi (made of the meteor hammer), or Fire Poi (using wicks made of Kevlar) to make the performance more visually appealing. Some performers have also incorporated techniques from other art forms, such as juggling.
Currently Poi dance is considered as a great example of moderate exercise. It has been scientifically proven that a month of consistent practicing of Poi will increase coordination, grip strength and concentration.
Types of Poi Dance
There are two types of Poi dances. One type uses a shorter Poi, where the length of the strings run from the fingertips to the wrists. Another type uses a longer Poi, where the length of the strings run from the fingertips to the shoulders.
Where to See Poi Dance
Tamaki Maori Village in Rotorua offers the chance of experiencing the famed Poi dance to its visitors.
Waiata-a-ringa is an action song in which dancers use their hands, bodies, and legs to illustrate the words or ideas behind a song. For instance, the performers might flutter their hands quickly, which can symbolize shimmering waters, heat waves or even a breeze moving the leaves of a tree. Waiata-a-ringa are usually accompanied by a guitar and can be slow, fast, serious, or fun and flirtatious, depending on the context.
Origin of Waiata-a-ringa
It is believed that Sir Apirana Ngata was instrumental in the first ever Waiata-a-ringa, and he has become known as “The Father of the Action Song”. He was born in 1874, was a gifted scholar, and was the first Maori student to graduate from a New Zealand university. Sir Apirana Ngata practiced law and entered parliament in 1905.
Sir Apirana Ngata worked very hard to raise the living standards of Maori people and he fought for equal opportunities in education. He was dedicated to the protection and advancement of the Maori culture. Sir Apirana Ngata translated the popular European songs of the time into Te Reo Maori, and then later borrowed the tunes and added Maori words of a different theme. These became extremely popular in Maori performing arts.
Examples of Sir Apirana Ngata’s Waiata include:
- E Pari Ra to the tune of ‘Blue Eyes Waltz’
- Hine e hine to the tune of ‘Home Sweet Home’
- Nga moteatea, a collection of Maori songs, one of his best-known publications
In the last 100 years, Waiata-a-ringa have become essential parts of Kapa Haka performances in Aotearoa/New Zealand. All cultures change and the advent of Waiata-a-ringa into Maori performing arts is an example of this. Prior to the arrival of European migrants, lyrics were traditionally chanted, but the Europeans introduced a sung style of song. The Maori adopted this style and some Waiata-a-ringa have a distinctly European sound, while remaining Maori in essence and spirit.
Groups such as Ngati Poneke in Wellington (1936) and Te Roopu Manutaki in Auckland (1969) made the language in Waiata-a-ringa very modern and simple. Today the themes of Waiata-a-ringa are very broad. Similar to the Haka, they are specific to certain tribes.
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Maybe you will want to try out your expressive dance moves once you have seen the Maori tribe’s performances!