Air bubbles

‘I will not be drowned’

Project Manager (Bristol) on the Life of Breath Jess Farr-Cox writes:

Consider how we use breathing (particularly long, slow exhalations) as a means of calming ourselves, regardless of whether our breathing has become laboured or not: before an interview, a performance or a difficult conversation. In yoga, exhalation is used similarly, to release tension in both body and mind, breathing out as if the air carries the tension out with it, and only moving deeper into a given pose on an exhalation. This is in contrast to holding our breath in order to make our body tense before attempting some new physical feat, as, for example, weightlifters do.

Other professional athletes do not always use breathing in this way, and calm is not always their goal. The dances that the South Sea island rugby teams do before games are a clear example of breathing being used to do two quite different things. Firstly, breath is being used as a way of preparing the players for battle: the breathing becomes deep, intense and punctuated with rhythmic shouting, grunts and other sounds, as well as changes in the breathing produced by the movements of the dance itself and the traditional exaggerated facial expressions. Secondly, the dancers use their breathing collectively, as a means of binding themselves together as a team. Their eyes remain fixed on the opposition while the dance takes place, and so the motions and vocalisations are coordinated solely through listening to each other’s breathing. Fierce and war-like as they sound, not all of these dances were intended as a prelude to battle. The dance of the Fijian team, for example, which differs from the others by often finishing with the dancers jumping in the air and screaming, is called the cibi (pronounced ‘thimby’), a word referring to the returning celebration of warriors after a successful battle. In recent years the Fijians have used the bole (pronounced ‘mbolay’) instead, because the bole is a pre-battle war-dance. Perhaps unsurprisingly for dances and chants originating in island nations, both the cibi and the bole contain references to the sea. The bole in particular evokes the menace and permanence of the ocean, and its ability to snuff out the both life and breath, in lines that translate as follows:

I do not sleep and will watch you
My strength can reach the crushing of the waves
I will not be drowned. Do you think you will defeat me by drowning?

It is a common misconception that the haka is the mother of all these dances.[1] While I will concede that, for me, the haka (ka mate in particular) is easily the most exciting of the dances I am talking about, the dances and the chants that accompany them are quite distinct. Even those steeped in rugby lore will sometimes lump all the dances performed by rugby teams together and call them ‘hakas’, as New Zealander Warren Gatland (coach of the Welsh team) did this weekend in response to a question about the Tongan dance, the sipi tau.[2] Moreover, while there are many distinct versions of the haka and the other dances, the plural of haka is haka. The plural is useful, however, because new dances are often composed for special occasions, including the haka written for the 1924-5 All Blacks team, the Invincibles.[3] This haka is called ko niu tireni and was written on the long sea voyage from New Zealand to Britain. The words speak of thunder before the breaking of a storm, and this element is retained in James Joyce’s version of this haka in Finnegan’s Wake, which he saw danced before a match in 1925, while he was living in Paris. As well as the rumbling storm (rendered as the more Teutonic ‘sturm’ by Joyce), he suggests some of the sounds of the haka, where each part of the body is struck and brought into the dance to play its part in the battle to come, speaking of the ‘sound of maormaoring’ and the ‘whackawhacks of the sturm’.[4]

More recently, new versions of the haka have been created, misunderstood and, as a result, become controversial. In 2005, the kapa o pango (‘team in black’) haka was composed, based partly on ko niu tireni and after much consultation with experts in Maori culture. This particular haka includes, in its final moments, what appears to be a ‘throat-slitting’ motion, and for some newspapers, teams and their management, this was felt to be meat too strong even for a war-cry. For example, Bernard Laporte (coach of the French team at the time) specifically asked the All Blacks not to perform kapa o pango when playing against his side, stating that he felt it brought the entire sport into disrepute (they performed ka mate instead) and for a brief period in 2006, there were no haka before matches at all while the New Zealand rugby union reviewed the entire practice. This ‘throat-slitting’ movement, however, is not the threat it appears to be. The gesture, which is made with the thumb rather than the fingers, and  diagonal rather than straight across the windpipe, is loaded with meaning in Maori culture, and refers to the hauora, or breath of life, being drawn into the lungs and heart, as a final inhalation before battle (possibly as a counterpoint to the hongi, a traditional greeting in which foreheads and noses are touched together and a breath is shared). Finally, we find another point of intersection between the interests of the Life of Breath project, with its juxtaposition of breathing and breathlessness as two sides of the same coin on the one hand, and the haka on the other. It is in the ka mate:

Ka mate, ka mate
Ka ora, ka ora
(it is death, it is death; it is life, it is life)[5]


[1] The haka was, of course, danced by the Maori for centuries before rugby was even thought of; it is also danced by other New Zealand sports teams, including most famously the Black Sticks (hockey).

[2] As well as the three dances mentioned, there is also the siva tau, danced by the Samoan rugby team. Similar dances of Polynesian origin have also been performed by various sports teams from Hawai’i.

[3] A quick visit to YouTube will reveal multiple versions of all the dances mentioned, including several cibi, siva tau and sipi tau dances where the players begin the dance in a circle, facing inward (initially visually similar to any pre-match huddle), rather than the more traditional and threatening outward-facing horseshoe shape.

[4] Joyce later wrote to his sister in New Zealand asking for a transcript of ko niu tireni. She, in turn, provided the slightly mangled text that had appeared in the New Zealand press, and so Joyce’s version (‘Ko niutirenis haura leish! A lala!’) has not only passed through the lens of Joyce himself, but multiple other, potentially corrupting, filters.

[5] These words have also been translated, perhaps even more evocatively, as ‘I die, I die; I live, I live’ or ‘I am death, I am death; I am life, I am life’.

Jess Farr-Cox

Jess is the Bristol project manager for Life of Breath. She is also a freelance proof-reader, copy-editor, indexer, teacher and writer.

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