Hōhepa Waitoa has helped kapa haka to grow in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) over the last 20 years and he couldn’t be prouder of what he sees unfolding as eight local groups prepare for regional competitions on 14 April at Horncastle Arena.
Performers from Ngā Manu a Tāne preparing for their Te Matatini performance in 2015.
The Ara Institute of Canterbury Te Reo and tikanga tutor started with a local group here in 1998, having learned his culture and language through the medium of kapa haka, meaning literally ‘dance group’, from a young age.
“I developed enough to start engaging the wider community in Ōtautahi. We extended beyond three groups and started pushing for national honours. We carved the path for other aspiring groups.”
Waitoa is the main choreographer and composer for the group Ngā Manu a Tāne (The Birds of Tane), along with two of his siblings and two colleagues from Ara – fellow tutor Reimana Tutengaehe and Heperi Harris, Manager of Te Puna Wanaka, which is the home of Te Reo and tikanga learning at Ara.
Outside of the Māori world, Waitoa is pleased to note that understanding of kapa haka has evolved. “We have come a long way from thinking that kapa haka is about poking out tongues and slapping chests,” he says.
“Our performance is 29 minutes and we cover a whole lot of issues – our practice is to talk about contemporary issues that affect our community. So, concerns such as education in the Māori community - I notice that many people are talking about Te Reo but not actioning it, so we incorporate that. We also have a matriarch who has been involved in Kapa haka for 50 to 60 years - we all learnt from her but some people have forgotten that, so I produced an item about her and for her.
“Last year was a big year in which we lost two strong people. Our performance is dedicated to them. One is my father and the other is a good friend and Bachelor of Māori language and indigenous studies graduate Wira Viliamu, who died while diving in Kaikōura.”
As the regional competition approaches and performers give up many weekends to practice, the local community has mobilised to support them. “The nannas, the uncles, the aunties, they all step up to help. So we want to give them a good show - that is more important than winning for us.”
That is not to say that winning is not important, however. Ngā Manu a Tāne has represented the region four times at the national Te Matitini event, a spectacle that draws crowds of thousands wherever it is held around the country, including Christchurch in 2015. The group is currently on a roll and working hard to win the regional competition for the third time running.
To do so, they will need to display not just physical prowess, professional choreography and synchronised movements but a full emotional range as well. “The best thing is that during the 29 minutes of the show you go through 50 sets of emotions. There are lots of ups and downs.”
Now an expert in kapa haka, Waitoa is keen to upskill his community. “I am sharing knowledge and I am giving back. That is also why I am at Ara, because I want to feed others who are hungry for knowledge, just like I was.”
The competitions are an excellent way for his students to deepen their knowledge and practice of the culture – there are three current students in Waitoa’s group and seven others in other groups.