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What is Maori Poi?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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The Maori are a group of indigenous people who live in New Zealand. In the Maori language, poi is a word for a ball on a cord, and Maori poi are an important part of culture for many Maori tribes. Traditional Maori poi consist of two flax strings attached to weighted balls of moss and other materials, while modern poi are often made with synthetic materials, rather than natural ones. The strings are swung rhythmically while dancing or storytelling. The traditions surrounding poi vary from tribe to tribe within New Zealand.

The use of poi improves strength and flexibility in the arms and hands, in addition to being beneficial for coordination. Both men and women use them for the physical benefits and as an exercise tool. They are also used in traditional dancing and storytelling, often as percussive instruments, since they made distinctive sounds as they travel through the air or brush the body. Multiple dancers often form a line for poi dancing, wearing traditional formal dancing garments.

Working with Maori poi is not quite like juggling, although the two practices both require skilled coordination. It takes time to learn how to manipulate the strings rhythmically, creating a pleasing and regular pattern. Shorter strings are easier to work with than long ones, and are often used by beginners or in specific circumstances. Longer strings require more advanced skills, especially when multiple dancers are coordinating.

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Some Westerners confuse Maori poi with fire poi. Maori tradition does not include a fire dance with poi, something which was invented largely in the Western world, although it was inspired by other traditional fire dancing. Working with fire poi requires a heightened level of awareness and skill, as it can be quite dangerous. Most people use Maori poi for training before graduating to the use of fire poi, which are also made from different materials than traditional versions.

Visitors to New Zealand can see poi performances by active members of Maori tribes and learn more about the distinct poi traditions of different tribes. Many of these performances also feature other traditional Maori performing arts, and they can be an interesting way to experience the culture and history of New Zealand. In some regions, instruction in Maori poi may be available for people with a high level of interest, along with traditionally made poi for purchase.

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