What is poi?

what is poi?

Poi is a weight on the end of a flexible cord, which you swing in circular patterns around your body. Both poi the object, and how you move with that object, can take on many different forms and styles…

Where does poi come from?

It is believed that poi originally came from the Māori of 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). 

What styles of poi exist today?

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. Some different poi styles include Māori short poi, Māori long poi (single and double), contact poi, glow poi, and fire poi!

Is practicing poi good for you?

Huata, N. (2000). The Rhythm and Life of Poia. 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.