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Poi refers to both a style of performing art and the equipment used for engaging in poi performance. As a performance art, poi involves swinging tethered weights through a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns. Poi artists may also sing or dance while swinging their poi.
Poi originated with the Māori people of New Zealand, where it is still practiced today. Poi has also gained a following in many other countries. The expansion of poi culture has led to a significant evolution of the styles practiced, the tools used, and the definition of the word “poi. In the Māori language, poi can mean the physical objects used by the dancers, the choreography itself, or the accompanying music.
In Māori culture, poi performance is usually practiced by women. Some legends indicate that it was first used by men to develop wrist flexibility for the use of hand weapons such as the club-like patu, mere, and kotiate, but recent academic study has found no evidence to confirm this story. Poi feature in the 1980s hit song “Poi E”. A large knot was tied at one end of the cord, around which the core was formed from the pithy middle of the raupō stem.
Dampened strips of raupō stems were then wrapped around the ball and tied off around the cord, forming the covering . The other end of the cord was often decorated with a mukamuka, a tassel made from muka formed around a smaller knot.
Occasionally, smaller tassels called poi piu were affixed to the base of the poi ball. Construction and design varied widely depending on regional, tribal, and personal preferences. Another variety of poi is poi tāniko.
In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a cottage industry developed from the manufacture of raupō poi for sale to tourists, especially in the Rotorua area. Tourist-friendly variations included miniature poi that could be worn in buttonholes and as earrings.