Entertainment | Kapa haka

Kapa haka ‘conditions intellectually disabled students’ bodies’ - music therapist

Sara Cohen is a school for students with intellectual disabilities, with a Māori music therapist who uses an indigenous approach to his mahi.

Students and Staff of Sara Cohen School Dunedin. / Credit: Sara Cohen School

Musician Dennis Kahui (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Ruahinerangi) and musical therapist teaches kapa haka students with diverse disabilities.

At Sara Cohen School, an education provider for students with intellectual disabilities, he teaches students between the ages of five and 21 and says it’s about conditioning their student’s bodies through music therapy.

“We teach each other and then we go out in the playground and we flip on the box (playground) and have a kanikani.

“We do that through play and repetition, and I have the words on the building walls so, subconsciously, you’ll keep it in your head.”

Dennis Kahui has a masters in music therapy with his thesis "A Cultural Approach to Music Therapy to Aotearoa from a Māori Perspective." Source: Supplied

Music therapy helps children with intellectual disabilities by promoting cognitive development, enhancing communication skills and fostering emotional expression through engaging musical activities.

Kahui is the only music therapist in Dunedin and is one of five Māori music therapists in the country.

He believes teaching kapa haka to those with diverse abilities helps staff teach children because three-quarters of their staff are Pacific or Māori, whose song and dance are a natural part of their upbringing and life.

“Me and the young fellas (students), when they want to learn a haka, we’ll learn Tika Tonu and, if they don’t know it, I also have the actions in stick figures.

“I record myself on the phone also so in the mornings staff can put it on their big screen to include it in their morning routine for the students.”

Sara Cohen School Dunedin. / Source: Sara Cohen School

The school has just over 55 students, with 78 staff members to cater for their needs.

Staff members include psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists,.

Principal Matthew Tofia says although people like Kahui already do great things, the school wants to try to accept more students into their facility as there are huge waiting lists for those seeking special help.

“One of the issues we have in our school and across the sector is that we’ve got more children on the waiting lists than we do at our school.”

#OtagoPolyfest2022 Thank you to the kaiako and tamariki from Sara Cohen School for returning to the Otago Polyfest stage for their 4th year. The Otago Polyfest stage is an inclusive stage - our audience loved you 💙

Posted by Otago Polyfest on Thursday, September 15, 2022

Music Therapy Week celebrations begin on April 10 and run until April 15, with the theme: Looking back moving forward.

They are reflecting on their profession’s history over time, recognising the people who have worked together to help music therapy grow in Aotearoa.

Kahui and Tofia hope this raises awareness to attract more funders into their industry to help care for more children and families dealing with intellectual disabilities.