Denise Keelan exudes the spirit of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
If you watch her in class with her tauira, there’s laughter, engagement, and smiles all round.
Denise, or Dee as she’s commonly known, has been a kaiako of te reo Māori for more than 14 years and her passion and love for the reo shines through.
“I always feel privileged to be a part of someone’s journey learning te reo Māori me ōnā tikanga,” she says.
“I love seeing the confidence and kaha grow within them to kōrero throughout the year.”
Aside from teaching te reo, another of Dee’s many passions is kapa haka and she’ll be taking the stage at Te Matatini with Te Tū Mataora.
She’s been doing kapa haka most of her life but laughs as she says, “my tinana definitely feels it more now.”
“Back in the day I’d just turn up in jandals with a bottle of coke, a belt and some poi. Nowadays my haka bag consists of running shoes, knee pads, bottles of water, sweat bands, heat rub, words, a change of clothes and Panadol.”
Although Denise is Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou through and through, her decision to perform with a Rangitāne rōpū is more about her work whānau, the kaupapa of the rōpū and her own extended paternal whānau also in the rōpū.
"There are about 10 Te Wānanga o Aotearoa staff in the performing group, as well as part of the support crew. It's a privilege to be able to perform with my work whānau, a bonus to also be performing with my Keelan whānau in the group and to learn and celebrate the stories and history of the people of Rangitāne."
Dee says she has “always been a kapa haka girl” and has been performing with Te Tū Mataora for the last three years.
She’s been making the trek to Palmerston North for noho most weekends and is now looking forward to welcoming everyone who makes the journey to Heretaunga for the world’s biggest kapa haka competition.
“I really can't wait to watch the performances and I look forward to all the people from everywhere spending time in my hometown, singing about my tupuna and celebrating my stories.”
If there's one thing Denise is not entirely confident about is how many more campaigns remain before she retires to the support crew.
"Ten, 20, who knows, but I'll do it for as long as I'm able... ka mate ururoa!