While walking from the National Taiwan University (NTU) Hospital MRT station toward Kategalan Boulevard at 2:20pm on Saturday I saw the first sign of the Dream Community’s (夢想社區) impending Dream Parade.
It was not the barricades or the police officers directing traffic off Chungshan South Road and away from the Renai Road traffic circle or the complete absence of vehicles around the circle. It was the man and women clad in two-piece sky-blue and silver winged samba outfits taking off their motorcycle helmets, locking up their bike and moving toward the circle.
I walked a couple of paces behind them until they veered toward the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the starting point for the parade, while I headed west toward a white tent set up on Ketagalan Boulevard (凱達格蘭大道) in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to sign in and collect my judge’s ID and score sheet. Having served as a judge before, I knew the drill, so I was quickly led off by a parade worker to find my assigned spot on Renai Road before too many parade watchers took it over.
While crowds of people had massed closer to the starting point near the memorial, the sitting spots on the curbs along Renai were being snapped up fast between 2:30pm and 3pm. There were families with small children — some dressed up in costumes themselves — babies in strollers, groups of students, elderly couples and almost everyone was armed with a camera, a smartphone or a tablet, ready to capture the fun.
I took the time before the parade started to peruse the score sheet, which listed the numbers and names of the 13 drumming groups I had to look out for — eight elementary schools, four junior-high schools and Jian Shan Bao Samba Reggae group (no age given) — all from Aboriginal villages and townships around the nation.
The judges are asked to score in three categories: presentation, which counts for 20 percent of the score, drum (60 percent) and choreography (20 percent). Under the presentation category, judges are asked to consider the group’s topic, costumes and property and score between zero and 20 points. Under drum, skill is rated between zero and 20 points, rhythm from zero to 30 and body movement from one to 10. Choreography includes creativity, scored from one to 10 and passion, scored from one to 10.
It is a lot to keep in mind for the few moments the team is passing in front of you (unless there is a logjam up ahead and they have to stop for a few minutes) and the variables are complex. While several of the teams kept to an Aboriginal theme, wearing vests, headbands, leggings and skirts distinctive to their Aboriginal communities, such as Wun-Lan and Jhangshu elementary schools, Jhong Siao Elementary chose green outfits with bright orange and pink feathered headdresses, another group was outfitted in black and white zebra stripes, and the samba reggae group appeared in matching Hawaiian shirts. Some decorate their drums to match their outfits, some have parents/chaperones in matching outfits, while one team have a handful of moms in black and red flamenco dresses; the variety is endless.
How to score is always a dilemma. What if you mark the first group or two high, only to realize that later groups are actually much better? Knowing that each of the teams has also had to beat local competition to make it to Taipei means I don’t feel that I can give out few low scores, not that any of the teams deserve them. I am posted just before the midway point in the parade, so everyone should still have a lot of energy, which begs the question: How do you weigh “passion”? Other questions puzzle me. Should the cuteness factor weigh in? And what about the “Ohhhhhh” factor — the little kids struggling to march/dance with their group when their drum is hanging down below their knees or they are beating the drum so hard a drumstick flies out of their hands? Deductions or extra points? I don’t want to be too much of a softie, or a meanie — and since mine is the only score sheet in English, it will stand out from the other judges. Or do I get asked back each year because I am a liberal scorer?
Those of us along Renai could hear the parade, which was scheduled to begin at 3pm, long before we actually saw the first participants. It took the first group almost 20 minutes to reach us, which included the French-made “demon fish” float named Boing Boom Tshaak and its pirate-garbed crew. For the next hour and a half, my goal was to manage to juggle taking photographs of the drumming groups and other participants with either my camera or cellphone while not losing my grip on my score sheet and pen or losing my place at the curb.
All shapes and sizes
The photographs one sees of Mardi Gras marchers or Rio de Janiero’s samba schools always focus on the beautiful women in feathers and not much else, often sculpted to within a centimeter of their life through exercise or a cosmetic surgeon’s skill. The great thing about the Dream Parade is that the participants come in all shapes, sizes and ages. For many, especially the older men, it looks like walking the parade route is the most exercise they will have all year. Who says you can’t be 80 and wear a showgirl outfit? The “samba grannies” are proof that you are never too old to have fun. Most have enough energy to put the university students in the parade to shame. And anyone who walks the parade route in 10cm heels deserves some kind of prize.
There were several new floats this year, all very well done and the belly dancing group with a fire-breathing spider/dragon creature of the past few years traded up this year to a fire-breathing orange lizard/dragon. There was a team of students in white hospital gowns, zombie eyes and IV stands and another group of young women dressed up as boxed Barbie dolls accompanying a small float with a Barbie princess, who held a large pink lipstick instead of a scepter.
By 5:30pm my feet hurt and I was eagerly awaiting the final participants, but I had one more group to judge before I could turn in my score sheet: No. 65, the Ma-jia Junior High School from Pingtung County. They were worth the wait. Granted, the members were older then some of the mostly elementary-school students in other groups, but they were fired up.
Twenty-five minutes later the team members were still going strong as they came back down Renai toward the circle, singing, dancing and drumming as if it was still 3pm. Police officers were trying to hurry the group along so that they could clear Renai and Chungshan S roads and reopen them to traffic, but the kids would not be rushed. This was their moment — not in the sun, which had already set — but a time to relish being young, alive and dancing down the streets of Taipei. They may have been tired, but they obviously did not want the party to end.
As the final parade participants were sheparded onto Ketagalan, where boxed dinners and drinks awaited them, parade initiator Gordon Tsai (蔡聰明) was still delighting youngsters and oldsters with his firebreathing, while moms and dads were grabbing their last chance to have their children pose next to a samba queen, a Barbie or on one of the floats.
And the winner is ...
As it turned out, the Ma-jia team were named the winners of the Samba Drum Competition, taking home NT$50,000 in cash, NT$20,000 in coupons for more Cadeson drums, a trophy, a diploma and medals for each team member. They absolutely deserved the award.
The samba beauty queens paraded one more time on the stage, but a winner was not announced because people were encouraged to vote for their favorite over the Internet, with results to be posted later.
However, the proud winner of the samba grannie contest was Chuang Yue-kuei (莊月桂) from Keelung’s Dajhuangguan (大壯觀) community.
As the moon rose high over the Taiwan National University Hospital, diehard partiers were still making music and magic in front of the foreign ministry as this tired judge followed a line of equally tired parents and still-wired children bedecked with samba bead necklaces or bemoaning the absence of them headed for the MRT.