A Better Way To Judge At Merrie Monarch

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - April 28, 2010
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“It’s All About Tradition” headlined the Hawaii Tribune-Herald for its Merrie Monarch edition.

Yes, it is, but sometimes tradition needs a little bending. Not to break it - as the Hackfeld Co. workmen did to the famous Kamehameha Avenue palm tree in 1910 while bending it to move their building - but just enough bending to be relevant for our times.

Or as MidWeek reader “Frank” e-mailed me: “What also is called for at Merrie Monarch is to let the audience in on the finer points of how hula is judged.”

Spot on, Frank! So with respect for Merrie Monarch tradition, I submit for consideration a hula scoring suggestion, an audience-participation suggestion, and ask if this really needs to be a money-and-placement competition or if it could survive and thrive as just an exhibition like Oahu’s Prince Lot Hula Festival.

Scoring. It pains me when a solo dancer or group loses by one point. Remember when Snowbird Bento was aced out as Miss Aloha Hula by one judge’s pencil mark? Hardly a year goes by without a one-pointer or a tie-breaker.

There’s a better way, and remember that MM judges are not without their connections to or antipathies toward certain halau or kumu hula. Some like heavier foot stomps or lesser uwehi. Most seem to discourage outright showmanship.

I suggest some variation of Olympic figure-skating scoring. Assign a grade of execution of each element ranging from, say, one to 10. The highest and lowest scores are then dropped, and the remainder are averaged. This number is added or subtracted from a base value to get the final value of that element. Adding together all the individual element scores gives the final score. But you then drop high and low scores until someone wins by some set percentage. No more ties or one pointers.

Audience. Should the TV audience have some skin in the game as in American Idol and Dancing With The Stars? Hula may be tradition, but it’s also entertainment.

This year, I’d have given first place to Johnny Lum Ho’s kahiko dance Kalaupapa and the halau’s auana of Haeheo Big Island He Nani No.The judges shunned them. Probably too untraditional. The stadium audience rose collectively to its feet to applaud Kalaupapa.

So how about giving the stadium and TV audience a 25 percent phone-in vote? You’d have to move judged hula back to Wednesday night to have a vote count by Saturday night. So what?

The dirty little secret now is that halau tend to study what judges want to see, not what a kumu wants to show off. We get too many very boring hula mele about Kaahumanu, Kapiolani and Emma. Plain Jane wins.

Competition. I’m unlikely to get much support for a non-competitive event. A winning kumu gets money and draws more students or can teach in hula-crazy Japan for big bucks.

But if the same names win every year - Sonny Ching, O’Brian Eselu, Kamanao and Mook - how much longer before the lesser locals and the perennial losers from Los Angeles and Carson, Calif., hang it up? We already are denied the creative hulas of the West Coast’s Mark Hoomalu and Patrick Makuakane. Not sufficiently traditional.

Well, let’s see how many people say, “Bob, you are right on,” and how many want me slow-roasted in the fires of Hell.

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