Question: What performance art by an indigenous group was originally used to improve both flexibility for waving and strength and coordination for battle?
Answer: The Maori Poi Dance
You may be familiar with the Haka, a ceremonial war dance performed by the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, but that’s not the only powerful display put on by the Maori. A dance known as Poi is another portrayal of strength and grace, as Maori women skillfully twirl tethered weights in unison, forming patterns in the air.
The word “poi” is both the name of the object used in the dance—a small ball tied to a cord—and the name of the dance itself. Oral legend goes that women practiced poi to keep their hands flexible for weaving and that men used the rhythmic movement to improve the flexibility and strength of their hands and arms so they could better wield weapons in battle. Although both men and women once used the object, today the dance is typically only performed by women.
Traditional poi are handmade from harakeke, the Maori word for a flax plant, and raupo, a stocky plant found among New Zealand’s wetlands. The flax is stripped and scraped and then twisted into two strands to make a strong cord. A knot is tied at the end where the pit of the raupo or a stone is added and damped strips of the plant are wrapped around. Depending on the regional, tribal, and personal preferences, sometimes tassels or other designs are added to the poi.
During the dance, the whirling poi are considered an extension of the dancer, often striking against their hand or body to create a percussive rhythm and to mimic the sounds of nature. Maori chants or songs sometimes accompany the synchronized twirling by performers for a mesmerizing and dynamic experience. Today, poi continues to be practiced by Maori people across New Zealand and has even grown in popularity around the world as a form of fitness and art.
10 More Things to Know About Maori Art:
- Polynesians settled New Zealand around 1250 to 1300 C.E. and developed the very distinct Maroi culture. The lasting traditions of this culture have been passed down for generations through not only their story-telling, but also their art in the form of tattooing, carving, weaving, painting, and dance.
- Traditional Maori art gave visual form to their cultural beliefs and spiritual ideas, and during European colonization, the art was used to proclaim Maori beliefs and identity.
- Ta moko is the traditional Maori art of tattooing the skin. Before the colonization of New Zealand, moko was received as a milestone between childhood and adulthood and as a way to convey the person’s social standing and ancestry. Men would be tattooed on their faces and thighs while women were typically tattooed only on the lips and chin.
- Carving, or whakairo, was done in wood, bone, and stone to embellish houses, containers, tool handles, and fence poles, as well as to create jewelry.
- Weaving, or raranga, was used by the Maori to create clothing, bags, and wall panels. Some weaving was done for more practical purposes while others were works of art, sometimes taking hundreds of hours to complete and given as gifts to high-ranking individuals.
- Painting was not as important for the Maori and was typically used as decoration in meeting houses. The colors black, white, and red dominated in paintings and across all art forms.
- One symbol known as the koru is an essential image in all carving and tattooing. This spiral shape is based on the unfurling of the silver fern and symbolizes new life, growth, strength, and perpetual movement.
- As mentioned above, the haka is a powerful ceremonial dance and chant with hand gestures and foot stomping, originally performed by warriors before battle. Used traditionally as a way to proclaim the warrior’s strength, this display is now treasured in New Zealand and is used as a sign of solidarity.
- When Europeans first reached New Zealand in the year 1642, they began heavily influencing Maori culture and art with the introduction of Christianity. Many New Zealand artists of European descent in the 19th century even appropriated Maori art as their own.
- In the early 20th century, there was a renewal of traditional art forms and a school for Maori arts was founded in Rotorua. There has also been a revival of Maori tattooing, which is not uncommon to see on Maori descendants.
Meet with Maori people and learn more about their fascinating cultural traditions during our Enhanced! Pure New Zealand adventure.