Story: Kapa Haka

Page 1. What is kapa haka?

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The Māori word ‘kapa’ means to stand in a row or rank, and haka is a dance. The term ‘kapa haka’ means a group or groups standing in rows to perform traditional Māori dances, accompanied by sung or chanted words. Kapa haka is a living art form.

Types of haka

Contrary to popular belief, haka is not only a war dance. There are many different types of haka, each appropriate for a different occasion. According to haka and Māori-language expert Tīmoti Kāretu of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu, haka provides a platform for its composer to ‘vent his spleen, to sing someone’s praises, to welcome his guests, to open a new meeting house or dining hall, to pay his respects to the dead, to honour his ancestors, to teach his traditions to the succeeding generations.’1 What each of these variants has in common is the mauri that permeates every aspect of the art. Haka draws on the performers’ spirits as well as their thoughts. 


Poi is a genre of music exclusive to New Zealand Māori. The poi is a ball attached to the end of a cord which is swung around by the performer to complement the performance. Men primarily used poi as an exercise device to help warriors wield their weapons more effectively in battle; women used poi to relieve muscular strain and to keep their hands and arms flexible and strong for everyday tasks such as weaving. Although the poi is now largely performed to European melodies, pre-colonial poi were recited in a similar manner to haka, especially by the people of Taranaki.

Waiata in haka

Waiata are a central element of kapa haka. In contrast to haka, these are items that are sung to tunes or chants, which include waiata tira (choral), waiata tawhito (traditional chants), waiata ā-ringa (action songs), poi, whakaeke (entrance) and whakawātea (exit). Waiata Māori transmit the feelings of a person or group, recording personal and prominent historical events and imitating oral narratives. Waiata are used to transfer knowledge within Māori communities.

Haka and social status

Haka is a custom of high social importance. The reputation of an iwi or hapū often rises or falls on its members’ ability to perform haka. The leader has to be an expert who can influence the performance of their team by the timing of voice and movement.

First kapa haka

There are many atua Māori (deities) associated with the art of kapa haka, including Hineruhi, Tānerore, Hinerēhia and Rūaumoko The earliest kapa haka was said to have been a convention of women gathered by Tinirau, a son of Tangaroa. As a means to inflict utu on his nemesis Kae, Tinirau instructed the women to entertain Kae and his people, and make him laugh so he could be identified by his distinctive teeth. The plan was successful – Kae finally laughed, and was killed.

First European reactions

The earliest Europeans to witness the haka were invariably struck by its vigour and ferocity. Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, later recorded, ‘The War Song and dance consists of Various contortions of the limbs during which the tongue is frequently thrust out incredibly far and the orbits of the eyes enlargd so much that a circle of white is distinctly seen round the Iris: in short nothing is omittd which can render a human shape frightful and deformd, which I suppose they think terrible.’2

Traditional functions of kapa haka

These postures and gestures were intended to daunt the enemy, or to excite the audience and draw them into the performance. Vigorous use of the diaphragm, powerful movements and strong vocal output can build up tremendous energy, vividly expressing the messages directed to the listeners. Physical and mental toughness play an important role in the execution of haka. Performers of haka in wartime aimed to intimidate their opponents with pūkana and whētero.

When asked to explain the art of performing haka, the Ngāti Porou haka master Henare Teowai replied, ‘Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana – the whole body should speak.3

  1. Tīmoti Kāretu, Haka: te tohu o te whenua rangatira: the dance of a noble people. Auckland: Reed, 1993, p. 87. Back
  2. Banks’s descriptions of places, New Zealand, p. 236, (last accessed 10 February 2014). Back
  3. Quoted in Haka: te tohu o te whenua rangatira, p. 22. Back
How to cite this page:

Valance Smith, 'Kapa Haka - What is kapa haka?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 May 2024)

Story by Valance Smith, published 22 Oct 2014, reviewed & revised 9 Feb 2023