What Is Haka Dance? Origin, Costume & Facts

In the culture of the Māori people indigenous to New Zealand, the Haka dance is quite possibly the most notable aspect. It has gained international recognition and become almost synonymous with the country’s culture in general.

This ancient ritual, characterized by rhythmic chanting, vigorous movements, and fierce facial expressions, holds a deep cultural significance for the Māori people. 

Originally developed as a way to prepare warriors for battle, the Haka has evolved into a multifaceted practice that is performed on various occasions, including ceremonial events, sports competitions, and cultural celebrations. 

Beyond its mesmerizing spectacle, the Haka carries profound symbolic meanings, expressing unity, strength, identity, and ancestral connections.

In this article, we’ll delve into the origins and significance of the Haka dance, exploring its historical roots and shedding light on the reasons behind its continued performance in the modern era.

What Is Haka Dance?

When performed by a group, the Haka dance, also known as kapa haka, is a mesmerizing Maori tradition that showcases strength, unity, and intense emotions. 

It begins with a powerful and rhythmic chant called the “whakaeke,” which sets the tone for the performance. 

Participants in the group dance will synchronize their movements, which include forceful stomping and body slapping. 

As they dance, the dancers will do a range of dramatic facial expressions, like bulging eyes, protruding tongues, and grimaces, that intensify the dance’s energy and passion.

The term “haka” holds linguistic connections to other Polynesian languages (of which the Maori language is a part.)

For example, words like Samoan “saʻa” (saʻasaʻa), Tokelauan “haka,” Rarotongan “ʻaka,” Hawaiian “haʻa,” and Marquesan “haka” all share a similar meaning of “to be short-legged” or “dance”. 

These words trace back to ancient terms like Proto-Polynesian “saka” and Proto-Malayo-Polynesian “sakaŋ,” both signifying “bowlegged”.

Haka Dance Origin & History

Maori culture

The Haka dance has a fascinating origin and history deeply rooted in Māori culture. 

Contrary to the common misconception of Haka being solely a “war dance”, Māori scholar Tīmoti Kāretu emphasizes its celebration of life.

According to Māori mythology, the dance is connected to the arrival of Hine-Raumati, the Summer Maid, whose presence on still, hot days creates a quivering appearance in the air. 

This phenomenon is personified in the dance known as Tāne-rore, performed by the son of Hine-Raumati and Tama-nui-te-rā, the Sun God.

Contrary to popular belief, “Haka” isn’t the name for a particular dance. Instead, it’s a generic term that encompasses various types of dances and ceremonial performances involving movement.

Different forms of Haka include Whakatū Waewae, Tūtū Ngārahu, and Peruperu. 

Each variation has distinct characteristics, such as jumping from side to side in Tūtū Ngārahu and the absence of jumping in Whakatū Waewae. 

Additionally, the Ngeri is a Haka performed without weapons, aimed at motivating warriors psychologically, while Manawa Wera Haka is associated with funerals or occasions involving death.

Historically, war Haka (Peruperu) were performed by warriors before battle to showcase their strength and intimidate opponents. 

These powerful displays included facial contortions like bulging eyes (Pūkana) and protruding tongues (Whetero). The dance incorporated a wide range of vigorous body actions, such as slapping the hands against the body and stomping the feet.

In 18th and 19th centuries

During these centuries, European observers described Haka as vigorous and ferocious. 

Upon arriving in New Zealand, Christian missionaries attempted to suppress Haka and other traditional Māori practices. 

However, the dance’s status improved among Europeans when it was performed during welcoming ceremonies for members of the British royal family, notably during Prince Alfred’s visit in 1869.

In modern times, Haka has also evolved to be performed by women and children (before, it was mostly performed by male members of the tribe.) 

The Haka’s widespread recognition was further solidified by its adoption by the New Zealand national rugby union team, the All Blacks, starting in 1905.

Check more: What Is Bugaku Dance?

When Is The Haka Dance Performed

The Haka is a very versatile dance. It’s performed for guests when two parties or tribes meet or when the tribe welcomes a stranger to their midst.

It’s not unusual to see Haka dance at weddings, funerals, birthdays, send-offs, and other celebratory events in the local community.

Haka Dance Costume

Back in the day, the Haka is typically done while wearing the traditional apparel of the Maori. This includes the piupiu, a skirt made of flax fibers or feathers. 

The skirt hangs from a waistband and features multiple strands that sway with the dancers’ movements, adding a dynamic visual element to the performance.

Accessories such as bone or greenstone pendants, known as hei tiki, are also commonly worn during the Haka. These adornments symbolize ancestral connections, spiritual protection, and the wearer’s strength.

In contemporary Haka, unless the performance is at folk culture aimed to showcase all aspects of the Maori culture (in which case, traditional clothing is worn), performers won’t wear any special clothes. 

Instead, they can wear whatever they choose, even jeans or T-shirts, if the Haka is done at home or at events like private weddings and celebrations.

Haka dance costume

Facts About Haka Dance

1. The Haka Was Once A Novelty In The New Zealander Sport World

Before the mid-1980s, the Haka was more of a novelty performed haphazardly during away matches to bolster the spirit of New Zealand’s rugby team. 

It wasn’t until Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford took charge of the All Blacks and made his team practice the Haka that it became an integral part of their aura. 

The Haka’s passionate performance and blood-curdling roar have now made it one of the most beloved sporting traditions worldwide.

2. A Haka For Each Occasion

Each Haka tells a unique story. Traditionally, the Haka was a war challenge performed by men before battle. 

Today, for every occasion, there’s a special Haka for it, including birthdays, weddings, funerals, and celebrations.

3. Trembling Hands Originated From Māori Legend

A notable movement in the Haka is the “trembling hands” motion, where the dancer raises their hands in the air and shakes them.

The trembling hand movements in the Haka trace back to a Māori legend. 

Tama-nui-te-ra, the sun god, and his wife Hine-Raumati embodying summer, had a son named Tane-Rore.

 The quivering appearance of the air on hot summer days is believed to be Tane-Rore dancing for his mother, serving as the foundation of all Haka.

Performers blend the trembling hands with various body motions and expressions, including bulging eyes, sticking out the tongue, stomping feet, and body slapping.

4. Kapa Haka Expresses Current Issues

Kapa Haka, or performance art Haka, is popular among Māori youth participating in local and national competitions. 

The lyrics of Kapa Haka songs often address social and political issues within the Māori community, aiming to rally Māoris to address these concerns and call out injustices.

5. Non-Māoris Can Learn And Participate

If you want to join in on the celebration, there’s good news: even if you’re not Māori, you can also learn the dance. 

The culture is incredibly welcoming and inclusive, encouraging visitors to engage in their heritage, such as learning the Haka. 

However, it is crucial to show respect and understanding while you’re at it. Try to learn all the words and techniques that you can with a good instructor!

Final Words

The Haka dance perfectly demonstrates the vibrant spirit and rich cultural heritage of the Māori people. If you ever have the chance to visit New Zealand, it’s a custom you must experience for yourself. 

Haka performances are often held at Maori cultural centers, like Te Puia, Tamaki Maori Village, Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, and Mitai Maori Village. 

In these places, not only will you be able to watch performances, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to participate, too!

What’s the thing that draws you to the Haka? Is it the spirit? The energy?

Tell us in the comments down below!

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