Over 1,500 performers from 45 teams are getting ready to take the stage at Te Matatini this week. Tāmaki gym owner Jarrod Tua is playing a vital role in ensuring these kaihaka are ready for the physical challenge of performing.
The wind is howling outside when I first chat with Jarrod Tua over the phone. It doesn’t take long before he’s asking to call back as he runs outside to stop his trampoline from escaping over the back fence. The effects of the February storms have been heavy on Auckland’s residents, and Tua, the owner of both a construction business and west Auckland gym Te Yard, (where we were scheduled to meet before Cyclone Gabrielle hit), had spent a good part of the past week sweeping, drying and cleaning up his gym to reopen for one of the most important weeks of its first year in business.
Te Matatini is the biggest kapa haka festival in the world, and arguably the most exciting Māori arts event on the calendar. For the first time since 2002, the biennial festival is being hosted in Tāmaki Makaurau, and for Tua this has added to an already busy season of life. As well as running his two businesses and training to stand for rōpū Angitu at their first Matatini, he has another pēpi on the way.
“If it was easy, I feel everybody would be doing it. But it’s definitely not easy. There are some days I wake up like, ‘Oh my gosh, what did I get myself into?'” says Tua.
The reason Tua’s gym is having a particularly busy season – just one year after opening – isn’t due to a late influx of new year’s resolutions, but because of its specialty: training kaihaka. At the moment, Tua is overseeing the fitness training for members of multiple rōpū competing at Matatini. The physical challenge is an element of this level of kapa haka which, Tua explains, many people don’t understand the intensity of.
“Performing is like doing what I would describe as something similar to an F45 workout. Going through your bracket, especially for the girls in the front, they’ll be on their knees, they’ll be up and down and doing small, controlled sprints. They’re bobbing, they’re weaving, they’re moving their hips, they’re swaying. We all have to keep alignment with our body and the people around us. It’s very aerobic.”
An ex-high performance league player, Tua has always put effort into his health and fitness, and now at Te Yard he wants to help other kaihaka to take a more holistic view at the benefits of physical activity.
“Taha wairua. That’s another type of training that we’ve been exploring. I know that a little bit of physical activity can help with my focus in other areas. When I was building I noticed that if I didn’t go to a training session, my attention span for my book work would be really low.”
In kapa haka, having a good base level of fitness takes pressure off performers who are simultaneously doing mental gymnastics to figure out their spacing, remember moves, hit notes, and stay “on” throughout the entire half-hour performance.
That mental and physical load is like a “high-performance sport,” Tua says.
“You have to eat right, you have to mentally prepare yourself, you have to manifest what you want from your rōpū, from yourself and from your performances, you have to do regular training. It’s hard, man. It’s hard on the body, but more so it’s hard on the mind. It takes you sometimes to a place where you want to give up.”
Te Yard is only small. Set up in an industrial area of West Auckland’s Glen Eden, Tua and his brother, along with other whānau and friends and their various kaihaka clientele can be found there most days, grinding through tough full functional fitness programmes with the giant roller doors open to let in some breeze.
Inside, the space and its equipment is humble. The flooring mats have been taped together after they were damaged in the Auckland flood. There’s no fancy electrical gym equipment, but what’s there is well loved, as evidenced by the worn tape and scuff marks along the walls – pull up bars are set up along one side of the space, a stack of wooden boxes sit ready to be used for jumps, various medicine balls, ropes and barbells with towers of weights make up the rest of the equipment offering. Tua has long-term plans to upscale, but is prioritising one thing at a time, and right now getting ready for his big performance at Te Matatini as well as running two successful businesses and preparing for a new baby is enough.
But the culture that Te Yard is built from – one which encourages its members to achieve their physical goals as a part of a far more holistic view of “health” – has created a community that Tua feels proud to have fostered.
It’s that community and connection that he says is the backbone of kapa haka too – but it’s not a community he has always felt part of. It was in high school, when Tua’s future was being charted in the world of high-performance sport, that he began to let go of the ties he previously had to his culture. With all his time put into training and becoming the best he could be at his sport, Tua stopped kapa haka, and when he moved to Australia, contracted to play rugby league, that part of his life became a thing of the past.
But when he came back to Aotearoa years later, Tua realised the positive impact that a closer tie with kapa haka and te ao Māori could have had on his sporting career.
“I would have been able to deal with, and get involved with some pretty cool things at a young age if I understood the values of kapa haka more. It would have helped to ground me more as a person. Going over to Australia I thought that understanding kapa haka values wouldn’t help in my sporting career, but I didn’t know that those values would have brought success to my career.”
Now, he’s enjoying the opportunity to teach other people how to find that balance for themselves: te Whare Tapa Whā, the four pillars of hauora that include mental, physical, whānau and spiritual health.
At Te Yard, kaihaka come to flip tyres, lift weights, practise bodyweight exercises and get in the zone before the performance of their life at Te Matatini. But what they leave with is far more than just a workout. They leave with a community of support, a confidence in their own mental and physical tenacity, and a lesson that challenges – like taking the stage in front of thousands of people – can be overcome with hard work, dedication, and the support of a rōpū that wants to see you shine.