Haka: The Majestic Dance Of The Maori People In New Zealand

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Written by: Phương Thảo

A GLIMPSE OF CULTURE | NEW ZEALAND

Every country has its cultural characteristics, and New Zealand is no exception. Talking about the beauty of New Zealand culture, it is impossible not to mention the very unique customs of the Maori people. If you come to this island nation, do not miss the opportunity to learn their traditional Haka dance.

haka dance of maori people from new zealand

1. The Origin of the Haka Dance

The origin of the dance can be traced back to the first Maori myth. Taman-nui-tera, the sun god, and his wife Hine-raumati, who is the essence of summer, had a son named Tane-rore. Maori believed that the air that vibrates on a hot summer day is brought about by Tane-rore’s dance for mother – a light, quick movement that is the basis of all haka. The shaking hands you often see in a haka performance is a performance of the summer dance of Tane-rore.

Digging deeper into the meaning of Haka, we see that it is a type of Maori ritual or “challenge” dance. Haka is often performed in groups, with people lining up, and that represents pride, boundless strength, and unity of a people. If you see Haka for the first time, I’m sure everyone will be “surprised” or even panic with the somewhat powerful melodies and dances. Movements like stomping your feet, sticking your tongue out, and slapping your body to the beat of the song can startle you. Haka lyrics, created in the Maori language, are often meant to describe the ancestors and historical events of the nation. The Haka performer needs to have a loud voice and a strong body to perfectly express the strong and fierce spirit of this ritual.

Traditionally, before each battle, the old Maori would perform Haka on the battlefield as a way to “warm up” mentally and physically for the warriors. Today, Haka is still used in large ceremonies or important meetings. Each side will present this performance as a greeting as well as show their enthusiastic spirit. For example, our school will perform Haka at the beginning of the school year as a ceremony to welcome the new school year, and to show the confidence and strength of the school community. Although the performance is small, every time I watch the school’s Haka, I always get “goosebumps” with that abundant energy.

haka dance of maori people from new zealand

2. Kapa Haka

A traditional variation of Haka is an ancient Maori art form known as Kapa Haka. The main point of difference between the two is that Kapa Haka has a strong focus on waiata, traditional songs that often convey emotions, tribal knowledge, and historical stories.

Like the Haka, this is also used to taunt enemies in battle. However, the repression of Maori traditions and customs in the 19th century turned Kapa haka into more of a musical performance than a form of intimidation. These days, Kapa Haka is mainly used as a means of preserving Tikanga Maori – the overarching custom and belief of the Maori people – especially when teaching children about their heritage. All schools in New Zealand have their own Haka and Kapa Haka groups, and interscholastic performance competitions are held every year.

haka dance of maori people from new zealand

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3. Different types of Haka

There are several varieties of Haka, practiced by men and women alike that fulfill different purposes. Modern examples include greetings from distinguished guests, recognition of important achievements, or special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, and funerals.

A Haka is considered a custom of high importance and bad delivery performance can damage a tribe’s reputation. As such, leaders need to have enough expertise to influence group timing and movement.

Some of the main types of haka include Waakae Whakatu, Tutu Ngarahu, Peruperu, and Ngeri.

Whakatu Waewae does not involve weapons and features performers standing upright while stamping their feet.

Tutu Ngarahu is used as a precursor to combat and engages in side-to-side jumping and weapon use.
Peruperu is traditionally performed when the tribes go into battle, with weapons and unified jumps used to intimidate the enemies they are facing.

Finally, ngeri is an expressive dance with no defined moves, meant to motivate and incite warriors to ‘draw some blood ‘.

haka dance of maori people from new zealand

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Here are two of the most famous haka:

3.1. Kamate

Ka Mate was composed by Te Rauparaha, leader of the North Island’s Aowa tribe, circa 1820. It was written after he escaped from pursuing his enemies Waikato and the Ngati Maniapoto tribe, as a period. The concept of victory over the life over death. This Haka is famous for its traditional performance by the All Blacks. 

3.2. Kapa o Pango

Since 2005, the All Blacks have performed Kapa o Pango as a replacement for Ka Mate. This particular haka was composed by Derek Lardelli and is meant to reflect the multicultural makeup of New Zealand, especially highlighting the diversity of Polynesian cultures in society. It is a bit controversial because it uses a throat-slicing gesture in its conclusion. 

4. Controversy Over The Commercialization Of Haka

Maori and Pakeha (European New Zealanders) also see haka with a sense of pride, both in the rugby arena and outside of it. While New Zealanders generally believe that the popularity of the haka can be a good thing – especially when it comes to promoting and fostering an interest in Maori culture – the commercialization of the dance has caused some controversy.

For example, in 2015, a British advert featuring former rugby player Matt Dawson satirizing Kiwi etiquette through what was dubbed a ‘Hakarena’ that was not taken lightly by Maori leaders. 

Earlier in 2009, the New Zealand Government had awarded Ka Mate’s intellectual property rights to Ngati Toa – primarily to limit the appropriation of traditional dance in Hollywood films and international advertising campaigns. The move comes after the tribe spent a decade fighting commercial exploitation of Ka Mate in court. Notable examples include a local ad campaign for a baking contest, including a mock Ka Mate performance by gingerbread men, and an Italian advertisement for Fiat in 2006, which featured a feminine rendition of the exclusively male war dance.

haka dance of maori people from new zealand

Therefore, it is important to think about explaining any cultural references that can confuse the audience of the translated material, either naturally in the text or via a footnote. This is precisely what happened when the Twilight series was translated into Chinese; the footnotes describing aspects of American culture foreign to Chinese readers helped the book become a bestseller. This method can also be applied to slang to maintain the cultural context that is frequently crucial to texts.

Conclusion

If you have the opportunity to come to this beautiful island nation, experience a Haka performance to see the strong spirit of the people here. Maybe their abundant energy will fill you with excitement.

Feel free to share any of your knowledge, thoughts, and stories about the Haka in the comment section!

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