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Kapa (to form a line) and haka (to dance). The literal translation of this term does not do justice to the high-levels of skill, precision, power and emotion in this dynamic Maori art form.
Kapa haka is a modern presentation of traditional and contemporary Maori performing arts. It involves a unique and emotionally powerful combination of precisely synchronised song, dance, facial expression and symbolic movements. Whether you’re watching a competitive or non-competitive performance, experts or beginners, the intense passion and pride of each person in the group will be unmistakable.
Watch, enjoy and learn together - it’s the Maori way
Kapa haka is often performed by quite large groups. The finest performers fill the front rows, while those who have recently earned their right to join the group begin at the rear, and over the years move further forward. To the sides, away from the performance area, small children will often be seen observing and practicing the movements of their elders. This informal style of learning is an integral part of Maori life. Traditionally, knowledge was not written down. It was passed from one generation to the next through observation and inclusion as well as storytelling, song, carving, weaving and other forms of art.
Exquisite timing, footwork, hand actions and personal presence
Woven through all the disciplines and items in a kapa haka performance, there are several common elements that the performers strive to perfect. The timing of every note, every movement and every transition should be absolutely precise and in complete unison. Footwork, which helps with the timing, is another important component. Some tribes will lift their feet completely while others have a tradition of only raising their heel. Wiri, hands trembling in a rapid side-to-side rotation, is another element appearing in various stages of the performance. Wiri can symbolise shimmering waters, heat waves or even a breeze moving the leaves of a tree. And finally, the way performers hold themselves throughout the performance should convey the quiet confidence of a skilled and experienced performer. It’s something that only comes with time.
A complete performance of diverse disciplines
The performers of a talented kapa haka group are remarkably multi-skilled. In a typical kapa haka performance, you’ll experience around 10 different disciplines, ranging from chanting and choral singing to graceful action songs and ferocious war dances. In competitions, separate awards are often made for best team in each discipline as well as for the best overall performance. Here is a description of each discipline:
- Whakaeke - an attention-grabbing entrance by the group to the performing area, skilfully combining a taste of the disciplines to come.
- Waiata-a-tira - choral group performances of songs and hymns.
- Moteatea - usually traditional chants or dirges, however contemporary compositions are becoming more common.
- Poi - a form of dance in which each performer skilfully twirls one or more poi (ball on a chord) in perfect unison with the others. 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. Poi dancers are usually women and a skilled performance will strongly convey a sense of grace, beauty, form, style and charm.
- Waiata-a-ringa - a song in which the communication of the words is supported by symbolic hand movements, as well as expressions using the face, eyes and body.
- Haka - a dance with strong postures and chanting, often terrifying like a war dance. The haka has been adopted by all New Zealanders, and through international sporting and cultural events has become a uniquely New Zealand way to challenge, greet or celebrate.
- Whakawatea - a planned exit from the performance area. Like the entrance, this also contains elements of each discipline.
- Manukura Wahine and Manukura Tane - the female leader and male leader of the kapa haka group are asked to continue using their skills and mana (recognised prestige, status or authority) for the good of all. This leadership request extends beyond the stage to include an ongoing role in everyday society.
- Kakahu - the dress or costume. This discipline acknowledges and celebrates the skills of Maori artists and craftspeople, including weavers, carvers, tuhi kiri (non-traditional tattooists or skin painters) and moko (traditional formal tattooists).
- Te Reo - the Maori language is used throughout the performance and supports all the other disciplines.