Sugar Bowl Gives A National Stage To Hawaiian 'War' Dance

International rugby fans know a Maori war dance, called the Haka, very well

Jan. 1, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The last time Hawaii came to Louisiana, the team was flagged for doing its ritual pre-game dance and incited anger among a hostile crowd that responded to the Warriors' arm-slapping moves with similar, more vulgar gestures of their own.

"I think they got mad," Hawaii defensive lineman Michael Lafaele recalled of the Warriors' visit to Louisiana Tech. "That's why they played us so hard."

That game, played in Ruston, La., back in September, ended up going to overtime before the Warriors pulled out one of their closest victories, 45-44, in a 12-0 regular season.

Hawaii's invitation to play Georgia (10-2) in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day gave the Warriors an opportunity to showcase their dance and accompanying chant, called the Ha'a, on a national stage.

"We take a lot of pride in that, especially the local boys," said Lafaele, a native Hawaiian who fits the mold with his long dark hair, tan complexion and burly physique. "It's something that's a part of us. Growing up, that was our culture."

International rugby fans know a Maori war dance, called the Haka, very well. New Zealand's national team (the All Blacks) performs it before games. So do rugby teams from some other Pacific island nations.

But Hawaii's Polynesian version with the slightly different name is relatively new to most of America, only now becoming familiar to college football fans as Hawaii draws more interest by virtue of all the winning the Warriors have done lately.

So perhaps people who've never seen it before could be excused for wondering whether they just saw something offensive, especially if some of the younger players from the mainland didn't perform all the moves quite right.

"We tell them to make their arm straight," Lafaele said, demonstrating by punching one arm out and slapping his other hand on his biceps.

"Don't go like that," he added, evoking laughter as he demonstrated a similar motion with his arm bent at the elbow and his hand slapping a little lower on his arm.



Each year during fall camp, veteran players teach new ones how to do it. They don't do it at practice under coaches' direction, but on their own time.

"It's different, it's one of those things that brings us together," said Hawaii linebacker Adam Leonard, who's from Seattle. "It gets you excited to play a football game. That chant really gets your blood flowing and gets you ready for a physical sport."

At Louisiana Tech, Hawaii players were told not to do the Ha'a on the field, so as they were walking up a hill toward their locker room, they found what they thought was fitting a spot - a spot where everyone could see them.

Referees flagged them for taunting because Tech players were still on the field. Hawaii had to kick off from its own 15 yard line.

Now Hawaii performs the dance on a sideline facing its own fans, their helmets off and some of their faces decorated with Polynesian symbols drawn with Sharpies.

"It's not a way for us to taunt the other team or call the other team out," Lafaele said. "We're not trying to scare them or instill any fear in them. It's just for us, our pride and our culture."

Hawaii is no longer the only team that does it. Leonard said he's heard of other college and high school teams who have players of Samoan or Polynesian backgrounds including dances similar to the Ha'a as part of their pre-game routines.

Who knows how it might catch on after going on display in the Sugar Bowl? The locals in New Orleans are bound to like it, given that they've been known to dance in the streets during funeral processions.

Leonard said he's generally unsure what opponents, their fans or other curious observers think of the Ha'a when they see it for the first time, but isn't really concerned about it.

"I don't know if they're laughing or taking it seriously," Leonard said. "We just do it to bring us together. Especially for mainland kids to go out there and to just experience that part of the culture, to do different things with Polynesian culture, it's a great experience for all of us."