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Kapa Haka is a traditional dance performed by the Maori tribes of New Zealand that recalls their history and preserves it for the future. Writer Brittaney Carter guides us through its evolution.
Text by: Brittaney Carter
Photography by: Paul Rickard and Tourism New Zealand
Country: New Zealand

hythmic chants course through the veins of each performance, at times tempered by melodic singing. The intense stomping of feet is proof that this kind of performance is to be felt as much as it is to be seen or heard. The dancers, wide-eyed and tongues protruding, look ready for combat — because they are.

The dance is Kapa Haka. It is a tribal art form that weaves together show-stopping stage entrances (Whakaeke), old-fashioned songs (Moteatea), and dancing (Haka), among other elements. Kapa Haka is the primary medium of performing arts in the Māori culture. The Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, compose 14 percent of the country’s total population and proudly demonstrate their Polynesian heritage through these tribal war dances. But this isn’t only an expression of its past. Kapa Haka, though it has ancient origins, is establishing itself as an art form for future generations as well.

But why dance for war? As the legend is told, Kapa Haka originated on the far away island of Hawaiki as a way to identify the villainous Kae, a creature that had eaten the whale of the revered ancestor Tinirau. The Kae could only be identified by his large, overlapping teeth, so a group of women devised a performance for an entire village to evoke laughter so that they could find out which one was the perpetrator and trap him.

The story is the stuff of legends, and though the need for war no longer exists, Kapa Haka has endured the test of time. Joe Harawira can attest to this. He is a proud promoter of his Māori heritage, and at first meeting, you might even think that he is perpetually ready for a Kapa Haka performance because of the ta moko, or tribal designs, on his face. But Joe retired from performing several years ago. Those designs, as it turns out, are permanently inked into his skin.

“The ta moko is essentially a curriculum vitae of the wearer. People are able to read the designs and understand who you are, where you are from, and what your skills are to support the community,” he says. Joe’s design has twelve different aspects, all of them describing his ancestral background and his purpose.

Joe has been training fellow Māori in Kapa Haka for more than 35 years. He was one of the founding members of the cultural heritage organization at Te Whare Wananga O Waikato, or the University of Waikato in 1975. But more importantly, he is a storyteller. In fact, Shona Cobham, a media advisor for the New Zealand tourism bureau, puts it this way: “In New Zealand, we refer to him as a ‘taonga’ – a national treasure.”

Because of his nearly four decades of experience as a Kapa Haka performer and exponent of Māori culture, Joe has seen firsthand how the art form has evolved. Though it is mainly an expression of dance and singing, the heart of Kapa Haka, he says, is the language. “The language is the soul of the people. Without the language, we become truly assimilated into the global society.” Te reo Māori is one of three officially recognized languages in New Zealand, along with English and New Zealand sign language.

Though Māori is still spoken by 157,000 New Zealanders, it has evolved over the years. Joe says. “We find that we now have a hybrid language. The language has changed from 1970 until now. And the language in the 1950s and the 1960s was a different language than what you would have heard in the 1900s.” It is all a part of the modernization of Māori, which many tribes welcome.

To make sure that this precious cultural expression survives in the 21st century, the youngest of Kapa Haka performers are encouraged to become composers so that they can preserve the stories of their own generation. “It’s about trying to revive color of the language in the composition. The old compositions are the stories that happened in their time, in the 1800s, and those will never change,” Joe says. But as society changes, new generations of Māori will have different tales. This is why he is so committed to training younger individuals in composing Kapa Haka tunes, as well as guiding them as they learn the movements of the dance.

Like the ta moko permanently inked on Joe’s face, Kapa Haka will be an eternal expression of Māori culture. It is also an open book on the history of the Māori tribes of New Zealand — stories of the past and the present, set to the stomping of feet and the cries of war.


Dancing and Telling the Maori Story .

Hapa Kapa is a traditional war dance performed by the Maori tribe of New Zealand. This dance is important for remembering the past and preserving it for the future. For them it’s more than just a dance. It’s an art form. It involves a dramatic show (Whakaeke), traditional songs (Moteatea) and dancing (Haka). Hapa Kapa is the principle medium of performing arts for the Maori people.

The Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, compose 14 percent of the country’s total population. They proudly demonstrate their Polynesian heritage through these tribal dances. While originally the dance was used for war, the dance is now an art form because the need for war does not exist.

Why did the Maori dance for war? The legend is that dance was a way to identify the monster, “Kae”, who ate Tiranu’s whale. Tiranu was an important Maori, so the people wanted to catch the monster. They created this dance to make the Kae laugh, so that they could identify him by his teeth.

The dance has survived for generations and is continually evolving. Joe Harawira, an experienced performer and now teacher of Hapa Kapa, says that the language is the soul of the people. He says that keeping their language has preserved their culture from becoming truly globalized. The Maori language is still spoken by 157,000 people, but Joe encourages young Maori to become composers of Hapa Kapa to help preserve the language through this form of art, story and dance.



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