Musings on Dance Africa, henna in NYC, and such

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Posted by Anne Beltestad on May 28, 2002 at 15:31:43:

In reply to: This weekend's Dance Africa festival and some musings on trends posted by Kenzi on May 28, 2002 at 14:21:02:

It was a fun festival...despite the craziness and filth it was good.
I started the weekend really depressed, homesick, and lonely. I
figured even if we made no money beyond expenses, at least I would be
outside, talking to people, etc.
It was really interesting to be doing henna at an event where most of
the people were several shades darker than I am. My usual pleas to
henna the hands, feet, ankles, wrists, seemed to work better than
usual; people were aware that these are the best parts of the body
for henna (thanks to Maison Kenzi and others) and when I added that
any time I've hennaed my chest it doesn't take at all, pointing out
the greater contrast on my pale skin, people seemed to value my advice.
I had several people who were very informed about PPD talk to others
watching while I worked, and surprised one couple by agreeing with
them from 15 feet away while hennaing that yes, they should always
make sure it's natural henna!
Many people knew enough about henna to know that Indians didn't
"invent" it (a claim I hear a lot), that it is used in Africa, and
wanted nice, traditional/intricate work.
One surprise was the difference between the "ambassadors of
henna"/"henna factory" that Gilded Lilies often became (leading us to
make good money at times) and the Maison Kenzi approach. I am used to
being right in the front of the booth (or paying someone to be there
as the "schmoozer"), a smile plastered on my face, willing to answer
the same questions over and over, asking people if they have seen
henna before, basically doing all we can to engage, inform, and pull
them in, not waiting for their questions but drawing them out.
Doing this with Kree and Co. in Seattle really helped me mature as a
person and overcome shyness, but I also saw it as integral to the
henna process. Combined with studying martial arts it helped me be
more outgoing as well as grounded.
I quickly found out they don't do it like that here. It's more a
matter of waiting for people to approach us, sitting and relaxing
until they have questions. Needless to say, the former approach is
drilled into me and I have difficulty letting it go. If there are
people looking at the designs, somebody better "catch" them...and I
do, and give them the rant that I think i could recite in my sleep
sometimes... "lasts a week to ten want to leave the paste
on as long as you can, keeping it warm and dry for as close to a day
as possible...bright orange stain actually oxidizes over the course of
a day...stains best on the palms of the hand and the soles of the
feet, where the skin is calloused and has no oil you move
up to the trunk it doesn't stain as dark so it doesn't last as long..."
These things are just part of the henna experience to me, and my style
proved to be more aggressive than Constance, our assistant. She'd
sit, often with her head down practicing henna, and let people come to
her, while I'd seek them out. My impatient tendencies made this a bit
frustrating for me at times, especially when people who had been
looking at the books just wandered off.
But we did OK; more than broke even, which in NY is an
accomplishment. Our booth was lovely on the second and third days,
when we had jewelry out and a Tuareg silversmith from Niger sharing
the jewelry side, as well as many colorful saris (which of course
people tried to buy).
I always enjoy an excuse to play dress-up, and the weather let me play
even more with layers, scarves, etc.
Henna here is very different from Seattle, and it's not just my
approach to marketing. Kenzi is right; although the West Coast is
*culturally* more "liberal" it's politically more conservative in many
ways, and NYC the opposite - people dress more conservatively, more
conformist, but tend to politically be more "liberal," even "radical."
So if, as with the henna artist we met right towards the end, you can
promote henna as (for example) part of women of African heritage's
natural, safe, beauty traditions (this was her approach, one of
education/advocacy, and I say "you go girl!") that's how people are
going to be interested.
Far less of a multi-culti, "ooo it's exotic so I want it" hippie vibe
than Seattle or California. Therefore, a different niche for henna.
Oh yeah, I just realized no men got hennaed! That's also unusual for me.
In the end, I left feeling empowered. Empowered by the fact that we'd
actually made money, talked to many really cool people, educated about
henna, and, for me, saw a lot of stuff I'd never seen before. The
fire-breathing trickster-dancers on stilts, many women with healthy
round bodies not afraid to show it all off, lots of powerful, strong,
sweet middle-aged women, colorful costumes, good food, and neat stuff
to look at all served to make me feel more empowered, more connected
with my community and to help to undo the racism with which I was
(unconsciously) raised. I appreciate that about New York, even though
I don't know how much longer I can stand being here it's experiences
like this that enrich me, that I will carry with me my whole life.
Since we are all so crammed in people have to learn to get along, to
be sociable for the most part.
Everything about life here is a struggle; even going to the grocery
store can be an epic journey (don't even remind me about laundry!) and
we worked harder for this festival than I ever did in Seattle, since
we had to break down every day and set up again in the morning, with a
gutter filled with dirty water and trash running behind our booth the
whole time.
And I can see why henna is important. Teaching people, reminding
ourselves, to relax, to take time out for ourselves seems to be the
only way to survive. I feel we gave that to people this weekend, I
honored them with some work I was fairly proud of, and hopefully we
are continuing to educate, to inform, and to promote this ancient art.
Hopefully, too, the young Black Muslim woman using PPD will educate
herself with the information I provided her (including this page) and
stop before she makes someone sick. It was hard to tell how sincere
she was, but I presented it as a concern about her own health, and her
friends were all gathered around listening, and I tried to be friendly
and kind but also convey my deep concern.
So...there's my long version of the whole weekend. Now to finish my
paper that's due today!



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