by Chris Connolly
The haka is the most frightening dance you'll ever see. And that's its purpose. It is a Maori war dance, and each violent movement is designed to intimidate the enemy.
Lined up in rows facing their opponents, dancers chant and stomp passionately while slapping their elbows, chests, and thighs. They bulge their eyes, wag their tongues, and twist their faces into scowls. To dance the haka, one needs to exude total confidence and commitment, and for years, it was the ultimate way for the Maori to ready themselves for battle.
Before New Zealand was colonized in the mid-1800s, the Maori used the haka to prepare for intertribal warfare. But after the British moved in, the dance found a new purpose—helping to fire up rebellions against Europeans settlers. Unfortunately, the dance was no match for their enemy's firearms. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Maori had lost most of their ancestral lands, and their culture was quickly fading. War and sickness had whittled down their population to fewer than 50,000 people.
Fortunately, a resilient group of Maori leaders emerged from this bleak landscape to defend their people's way of life. Specifically, an inspirational activist named Apirana Ngata engineered reforms that increased Maori political power and preserved Maori customs. Slowly, results began to show—and the proof was in the haka.
In 1905, New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team (above) performed the dance as a warm-up while on tour in England. The team, which included both Maori and white players, represented all of New Zealand, and so did the haka. Some members of the British audience were baffled and outraged by the chant, but most appreciated the power of the ritual and the way it excited players and fans alike. Since then, the haka has become not only the All Blacks' trademark, but also a symbol of New Zealand unity. The dance is performed at government functions and cultural events, and it's even returned to the battlefield, albeit in a different form. The New Zealand military has scripted its own haka, which begins and ends with performances by female soldiers, as a nod to their role in protecting the country. The dance that used to stir men to war has become a symbol for equality and peace. Once a show of Maori defiance, today, the haka stands for New Zealand's solidarity. [Image courtesy of Archives.govt.nz.]
The Rugby Salute to Women
There have been many variations of the haka throughout history, but the most famous is the All Blacks' trademark rugby dance, Ka Mate. It tells the story of a great Maori chief named Te Rauparaha and his daring escape from a rival tribe. While hiding in a sweet potato pit, Te Rauparaha's enemies began chanting incantations to draw him out. But before the magic could take effect, the wife of a friendly chief blocked Te Rauparaha from the spells using the potent power of her female sexuality. Te Rauparaha was saved, and he was so thrilled by his narrow escape that he composed Ka Mate. The lyrics were later adopted by the All Blacks for their pre-game haka, and a tradition was born. When performed by 20 or more heavily muscled rugby players, this tribute to women is one of the most compelling sights in sports.
Don't Mess With Texas' Haka
Sports teams are some of the most superstitious groups in the world. If something works for one team, you're bound to see others trying out the same thing. So it has gone for the All Blacks' rugby haka. Nowadays, copycat dances have emerged in some unexpected places—from the University of Hawaii to the Mormon haven of Utah's Brigham Young University.
Perhaps most notable, however, is the hakamania of Euless, Texas. During the past 20 years, about 4,000 people migrated there from the Pacific island nation of Tonga, but they never quite felt like they belonged. That is, until the glorious day when their sons and grandsons began warming up Euless' Trinity High School football games with the haka. Tonga and Maori share a common Polynesian lineage, so the new residents felt right at home. Before long, Texas football fans of all races were chanting the words in unison with the players and sporting T-shirts that read "Got Haka?" The dance promoted team unity and, apparently, also terrified the competition. In 2005, Trinity High School won the state football championship. Here's a clip: