What is poi?

According to Karyn Paringatai’s (2009) book Poia mai taku Poi – A history of Poi, “Poi is the name of both the dance and the instrument used.” In other words, poi is both a weight on the end of a cord, and the act of swinging that weight in circular patterns around your body. But if we move beyond the pragmatic definition of poi, and attempt to describe the meaning behind the object and how it’s used, defining poi becomes quite a challenge!

maoripoi

Where did poi come from?

It is believed that poi originally came from the Māori in New Zealand. There is little information about poi prior to European arrival, but it is generally believed that poi was used by Māori men to train strength and flexibility, and by Māori women as a form of entertainment. According to Paringatai, poi was originally part of the “dance” section of the whare täpere, meaning the “house of entertainment” (Paringatai, 2009). One early account of poi by Edmund Halswell, the Protector of Aborigines and Commissioner for the Management of the Native Reserve, reads:

These are their principal manufactures: they make, however, baskets in colours, and toys of various sorts, such as balls very neatly made of black and white plait, which are swung by a cord in a peculiar manner, whilst the performers, many in number, sing in excellent time. Most of the women excel in this, and the exact time, the regular motion, and precise attitude which is observed by all the performers, are peculiarly striking. (Paringatai, 2009)

Another, by Lieutenant-Colonel St John in 1830, states:

One pretty haka they have, in which each performer holds a ball with a short piece of string attached, and the different motions given to it with great rapidity and in perfect time form a pleasing accompaniment to the monotonous dreary sing-song recital. At times the voice seems to proceed from the heel, it is so deep. (Paringatai, 2009)

During the wars waged against Māori in the 1860’s, Te Whiti and Tohu, two Māori leaders committed to resisting the European land invasion through non-violence, utilized poi as a symbol of their religious teachings. According to Paringatai: “As part of their religious philosophies Te Whiti and Tohu used poi as a spiritual messenger in order to direct their followers’ attention to more peaceful ways of living despite the rising tide of government control” (Paringatai, 2009). The poi dance was also (and continues to be) accompanied by a poi song. Though chanting was always connected to poi dancing, Te Whiti and Tohu used it as a religious messenger, for it was an open and trusted medium for delivering historical accounts, religious sermons, and political speeches.

After the wars, Māori poi took on the role of attracting tourists, and poi slowly expanded across the globe (though there is no account of exactly how poi moved from New Zealand to the rest of the world). Today poi has gained international popularity as part of the flow arts family, and is practiced in many different styles for recreation and artistic performance.
 

What styles of poi exist today?

Today there are a myriad of poi props and poi styles in existence. From Maori short poi to flags to fire, poi come in all shapes and sizes.

modernpoi

I believe, based on my experience with poi and conversations with other poi practitioners, that all these poi styles can be organized into two overarching categories: Māori Poi and International Poi. While both styles have many intricacies and complexities, and there are many substyles within each style, below is a brief general outline of the fundamental differences I see between the two poi styles.

Māori style poi* International style poi**
poi ball is generally light poi ball has significant weight
poi are primarily short (approx. 25cm) or long (approx. 73cm) poi are of no specific length, but are primarily medium in comparison to Māori poi
poi is primarily a foam ball covered in plastic with a yarn string (early poi have the same design but use plant materials) poi can be almost any material including kevlar fire poi, LED glow poi, silicon contact poi, and cloth practice poi
practiced primarily by women practiced by both genders
practiced primarily in groups with synchronised choreography practiced primarily alone
actions have specific cultural meanings and are used to tell stories moves and the height of moves have no specific meanings
the types of actions are primarily determined by how well they represent a symbol or element of a cultural story types of moves are determined by the poi spinner, and are based on their own style and what feels good to them
because actions represent cultural elements, the repertoire of actions is small and the evolution of actions is slow because there are no limitations on moves, and poi spinners are interested in pushing the boundaries, there is a quick evolution and large repertoire of moves
primarily accompanied by song / chanting primarily done silently or accompanied by recorded music
primarily accompanied by specific steps no specific steps, moving is completely determined by the poi spinner

*Information in this column from: (Huata, 2000; Taylor, 2007; Paringati, 2009)
** Information in this column taken from my own experiences as a poi practitioner and instructor

 

Huata, N. (2000). The Rhythm and Life of Poi. New Zealand: Harper Colllins Publishers.
 
Paringatai, K. (2009). Poia Mai Taku Poi: A History of Poi (A Critical
Review of Written Literature on the Poi in New Zealand and the Pacific). Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller Aktiengesellschaft & Co. KG.
 
Taylor, A. H. (2007). The Art of Māori Poi. New Zealand: Go Tuatara Limited.