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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

What to watch for as dancers compete

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Merrie Monarch hula competition will be televised on KITV 6-11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 6 p.m. — midnight Saturday. When it comes to truly understanding this event, there's no substitute for years of study. But everyone can enjoy watching the Super Bowl of hula for its music, color and physical grace. A few notes may help the casual viewer grasp a bit of the game:

• You can't use an applause meter to gauge who's doing well. What excites the audience may not play well with the judges, most of whom favor correctness over flashiness in chant and movement. Besides, the home crowd cheers loudly, so expect a lot of noise when Hilo teachers Johnny Lum Ho, Ray Fonseca and Glenn Vasconcellos put their students on stage.

• The competition is winnowed a bit this year. Popular kumu hula Sonny Ching and O'Brian Eselu are not entered (Eselu dropped out because of illness). But last year's champion halau, led by Paleka Mattos, is back, as are the perennially high-scoring dancers taught by Chinky Mahoe.

• One halau to watch may be Ka Pa Hula o Kamehameha, the Kamehameha Schools troupe. They made a good showing at their festival debut last year, and this year, Kawena Stender, daughter of Kamehameha's kumu hula Holoua Stender, makes her second try in the solo contest. She narrowly lost the Miss Aloha Hula title in 1997.

• Speaking of the Stenders, you might listen for a different cadence in the chants the dancers will perform Friday night. The group has selected a less-familiar style of hula kahiko called hula 'ala'apapa, one with an irregular meter.

• The festival is welcoming back the dancers from two alumni teachers absent for several years. One is Sissy Lilinoe Kaio from Carson, Calif. (Her group, Hula Halau 'O Lilinoe, and Keali'i Ceballos' Keali'i O Nalani, are the only Mainland competitors this year).

• The second is Puluelo Park, who decided to return to the competition after 17 years to celebrate her golden anniversary as kumu hula to Kailua's Na Hula O Puamana. And she must be pretty tough. Those eight dancers you see? They're the ones left standing from the 21 who began training for this contest almost a year ago.

• Hula is a family affair. Maelia Loebenstein-Carter is back this year with Ka Pa Hula O Kauanoe O Wa'ahila, the Honolulu school she inherited from her late grandmother, "Auntie" Mae Loebenstein. By the way: Kawena Stender was once Auntie Mae's student. See how complicated hula genealogy gets?

• If you want to take a stab at understanding the scoring process, consider this: Judges award points based on the group's entry, exit, costuming, grooming, expression, hand gestures, feet or body movements, posture, precision and chant interpretation.

• Conversely, if all this gives you a headache, you can just switch off the brain, sit back and soak up hula's simple beauty. Who could blame you?