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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Samoan-influenced haka gets the energy level up on the field - and in the stands

Gary Barlow isn't a big believer in structured pregame warm-ups for his Delta College football team.

There are no regimented calisthenics, no jumping jacks while spelling out "Delta" or "Mustangs."

Frankly, the seventh-year coach doesn't waste his time on pregame routines, because they're pointless.

"I've never won a warm-up, but my team has been able to win some games," he said.

Given that philosophy, it's surprising that his 2007 team has made the haka a pregame ritual.

That's right, the haka, the dance that's costing the University of Hawaii a 15-yard taunting penalty when it does it before its games, has made its way to the mainland, courtesy of a Delta team that includes some 20 players of Samoan descent.

It's quite a vision, a throng of young men in shoulder pads following the lead of Ben Taifane, screaming the war cries and replicating the blunt, fierce movements of the dance of the Maori warriors of New Zealand.

It is not, however, a gimmick or sideshow.

It is a unique scene on a football field, and in the case of the Mustangs, it's a bonding tool that isn't as expensive as white-water rafting on the American River or as risky as rock climbing in Yosemite National Park.

"It helped different races come together, learn something about our culture," said Taifane, a sophomore who was born in Honolulu, lived in Samoa and came to Stockton as a high school junior.

He and sophomore Wesley Mauia, who was born in American Samoa (a U.S. territory comprised of seven islands about 2,600 miles south of Honolulu) and came to Stockton in 1998 after living in Oakland for five years, took the lead in selling Barlow on the dance.

They, and other Samoans on the team, make up Tama Samoa Dance Productions and entertain at local luaus, performing dances they learned as children.

Barlow was skeptical but let them teach the team their dance, which Taifane choreographed based on the moves of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team, which performs the Maori war dance.

"We performed it for them, and they got all excited," Mauia said. "Before, Delta just showed up, warmed up and played the game. Now we do the haka, and we're focused and ready to go. It gets our energy going."

The dance is a crowd pleaser, no doubt about it, and while the players do it for the fans, to thank them for their support, they mostly dance for themselves.

"The war dance isn't just a dance, a little showboat we do before games," Taifane said. "It has a meaning behind it. We see ourselves as warriors, holding our field. It helps hype everybody up. Some players go on the field doubting themselves. The haka taught them that they're part of our team. It united us together. We all go in together as a group."

Which is why Barlow allows the dance that has fans buzzing.

"Everyone bought in, and it brought us closer as a team," Barlow said. "The players talked to the other players about it, told them the history behind it and the team wanted to know more. They did it on their own. They stayed after practice to learn it. Getting kids to stay after practice is something because they put in long days. They start at 7 a.m. with weights and have classes and practice. But they stayed."

Taifane and Mauia said it didn't take long to teach the haka to the uninitiated. Each Samoan player took a group of teammates and went to work, explaining that the dance, and accompanying shouts, proclaim them ready to hold their ground and challenge the opponents to bring their best.

Within a week, the Mustangs were able to perform their 2- to3-minute dance at the season-opener at Modesto Junior College.

Or, in some cases, fake it.

Quarterback Andrew Beam admits dancing is not his strong suit and likes to hide in the middle of the pack. Others, Taifane says with almost a straight face, are not very coordinated, and the idea of moving, throwing their hands up and shouting the unfamiliar Samoan words almost did them in.

But perform the haka they did, and they seem to look forward to the performance each week.

"It's to get us focused and gets our mind-set ready to go," Mauia said. "We want to focus on one thing, the opponent."

MJC players, Mauia said, were taken aback by the dance, which the Mustangs performed on the sideline, facing the Pirates.

As the reputation of the Delta haka grows, it will cease to throw rivals for a loop.

They will be prepared for it.

What they need to prepare for, however, is the energetic impact a good war dance can have on a football team.

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