Poi; A Brief History
What is Poi?
Poi (pronounced poe-E) is a type of performance art that involves intricate moves done with balls swinging from the end of a rope. Poi quite literally means "ball" to the Maori people. The performance shows itself in the form of dance and can be quite a beautiful sight.
Poi originated with the Maori people from what we call New Zealand. They call the island Aotearoa. Scholars believe that these people began to settle in the area some 1,000 years ago, but their exact origin is highly debated and still unknown. The Maori have a history similar to that of the Native Americans in North America. Europeans built settlements throughout New Zealand and attempted to take over the island. The battling here ended with a treaty and resulted in much less blood shed than in America.
Poi has been part of the Maori tribes for hundreds of years. It began as a way for the men to build coordination, flexibility and upper body strength for battle. The women would use poi as wrist exercises, as their duties to the tribe were to weave and make clothing. The art eventually made its way into a dance and the Maori woman began to perform poi for a variety of events.
Unlike popular belief, the Maori people never used fire in their performances. The traditional poi is made up of plant fibers with fabric wrapped around it to form a ball, attached to a cord made up of twisted flax leaves with a tassel hanging from the end.
In the early 1900s, tourism began to pick up in New Zealand. With that came more opportunity for the Maori people to earn an income. Many people would perform Poi dances as tourists would enter the country. The art was so fascinating to tourists, that the performance was eventually brought back to their countries of origin, thus beginning the spreading of Poi throughout the world.
Since leaving Aotearoa, Poi has evolved into much more. There is a wide assortment of poi, these days. You can purchase Poi that can be lit on fire, Poi with LED lights inside them, Poi with chains, ropes, or nylon and Poi with flags, among many others.
You can watch Poi performances at night clubs, raves, circuses, street shows, parades, etc. The act has been growing in popularity in recent years. There are now large groups of people that are dedicated to the performance art and in perfecting the most intricate of moves.