Dance Around the World: The Haka

by Sarah Friswell

As I thought about what to blog about this month, it dawned on me that my passion (lately) has been cultural survival. So I'd like to share a bit about some unique cultural dances that I've found interesting during my studies of dance at the University of Tampa and beyond.  I hope you enjoy!
Photo Credit Sarah Friswell
This past May, I had the pleasure of traveling to New Zealand. While I was there, I saw beautiful landscapes, met wonderful people, had fantastic food, and saw some great visual and performing arts. The indigenous peoples, or tangata whenua, of New Zealand are the Maori people, and their culture is often shown alongside modern New Zealand culture. They have used dance for a few thousand years in ways we would never think of.

Woman and men both danced with and used poi (ball on a cord) to keep their wrists supple for maneuvering weapons in battle. It was a very good way to increase flexibility and coordination. Poi can be on a short cord or a long cord and they are swung in varying patterns to rhythmic music and singing.

The most famous Maori dance is the haka. It is a dance used for many reasons, although most people think of it as a dance of war. The predominant performers are men, but women also sing in the background.

Early on in Maori history, the haka was used to intimidate when two tribes would meet, similar to hip hop battles today. It ensured that each party was alert and aware of the other so that neither could be taken advantage of.

Haka is a dance used to show strength and dominance. The men stand upright in an open stance and rhythmically pound their feet on the ground and/or pound on their bodies to show strength and to intimidate their opponents. The facial expression is what most people remember about the haka. The performers/warriors open their eyes very wide, frown and show their tongue, as if to tell their opponents that they will eat them if they make a wrong move.

The haka is said to be derived from Ra, the sun god. He had a child with Hine-raumati, the essence of summer, and they named their child Tenerore. It's said now that the shaking of the hand, or wiriwiri, represents the sun glistening on the water and they say that is Tenerore performing for his mother.

To read more about the history of the haka, click here.

Today, the New Zealand national rugby team, The All Blacks, perform the haka at the beginning of their matches to intimidate their opponents. While I was in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to speak with community leaders in Napier who teach the haka to young Maori boys who are involved in gangs. They said that it's important to show the boys a look at their own history and teach them traditional ways. When they learn these traditional lessons, they feel proud to be Maori and most of the boys have chosen to let go of all gang ties and help to rehabilitate others.

You can watch an example of the haka here.

For more information about the haka and dance in New Zealand, check out these links!
Maori Performance Art
Maori Dance and Culture
Kahurangi Maori Dance Company
The All Blacks Haka

Photo Credit Brianna Vaughan


k said...

Excellent post Sarah! Would love to hear more about the group in Napier and the tradition of performing the haka before All Blacks games. Just looked up the All Blacks and they won their first game at the Rugby World Cup today against Tonga. I am curious to know how other teams respond to the haka and how the players feel about performing it. Does it give them a competitive edge?

j are is said...

fascinating! dance and sports, living together! what's next? cats and dogs?

Seriously though, this reminder of how these cultural battle dances are part of the unbroken thread that hip hop/krunk battles represent today is an important discussion. Would love to hear others' thoughts


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