The Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival is the largest Māori performing arts competition in the world. This week we’ll see over 40,000 spectators congregate in the Hawkes Bay to watch the event live, with many more thousands tuning in on radio, telelvision and online. Kapa haka will take over the lives of many in these next few days, as we all try to catch a glimpse of the best haka groups in the world. But kapa haka is more than just a performance, more than simply an art form; it has the power to positively transform the wellbeing of individuals and communities.
The origin of haka is depicted by the union of Tamanuiterā, the sun, and Hine Raumati, the Summer Maid. Their child was named Tāne Rore, and he is the trembling air we see on the horizon on a hot summer’s day. This phenomenon is represented in haka by the wiri, the quivering hands we see during a performance.
Tīmoti Kāretu wrote that haka was the generic name for all Māori dance, yet many only identify the word with the male dance performed most popularly by the All Blacks. So, the haka describes more than just the ‘war-dance’, it includes a wide variety of dances that we will witness at Te Matatini. Haka is a performance that recruits many different parts of the body: the hands, feet, arms, legs, body, voice, tongue, eyes, heart and soul. Haka expert Henare Te Owai famously said, “Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana”, which means, “Let the whole body speak”. Haka is often viewed as the complete physical expression of a performer.
From an athletic standpoint, haka is literally a full body workout that promotes the release of adrenaline into our bloodstream. Adrenaline raises our alertness and it improves circulation by dilating blood vessels, both factors that contribute to improved physical performances. In addition, the mental imagery that a performer holds coupled with the appropriate physical actions primes our neural pathways contributing to improved physical skill and coordination. These benefits are critical to the function of the toa preparing for battle. Beyond these types of benefits, and although a deeply physical practice, there is more to haka than a stomping foot and a protruding tongue.
Traditionally, haka had many uses, for they could carry important messages, tribal histories or simply entertain guests. Haka has been utilised for centuries by our tūpuna as a tool that could imbue desirable qualities of atua (gods, deities) into a performer. Thus, to be a product of Tūmatauenga, the god of war, was favourable prior to battle. Our tūpuna understood the value of haka to our health, and for this reason, used haka in many aspects of everyday life. Haka in the early morning would illicit a feeling of physical wellbeing that would be experienced for the whole day. Then on retiring for the night, an earlier performed haka would lead to a state of relaxation that supported sound sleep. Through these performances of haka, a performer establishes a whakapapa connection through the words, the actions, and the spirit of the performance, enhancing their vitality and wellbeing.
The word ‘haka’ is said to come from the terms ‘hā’ meaning ‘one’s breath’, and ‘kā’ meaning ‘to light’. The breath was an integral symbol of life, and therefore, haka is to enhance and ‘light’ a person’s inner vitality. Herewini Parata described this purpose of haka when he said “Ko te whakakā i te hā me te wairua o te tangata”, meaning, “To light the inner vitality and spirit of a person”. With this in mind, haka is a practice that has the power to touch beyond the physical, to reach the mental, spiritual, and social elements of wellbeing.
Being involved with haka brings an oranga (wellness) that is felt physically through the action of performance. It strengthens the mind through the months of learning, development and dedication that is required prior to walking on stage. The oranga we get from haka is also felt spiritually through a strong cultural bond that is carried through the words and symbols of our ancestry. Our identity as Māori, and knowing our place in the world, strengthens our social connection to one another, a wellness that fosters whanaungatanga. So get ready to see the best haka performers in the world, take a few tips, and add haka to your kete today as a tool to invigorate your health, and positively transform your hauora.