It is a strange, often awkward, thing to enter a community to which you do not belong and attempt to fit in. Last week I had the opportunity to join a group at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center called “Sistahs Making a Change.” This is a health empowerment program for women, meeting twice a week to dance, participate in workshops on different health and self-care topics, and support one another. The program is free, and open to anyone on a drop-in basis.
So it was that last Thursday evening this twenty-something northeastern white girl walked into a room full of older, New Orleans-native black women, and spent the evening dancing with them. When I first walked in I felt awkward, self-conscious – there were about 7 or 8 women chatting away who all seemed to know each other, and though it was a few minutes past the advertised start time of 6:00 no one appeared to be starting the program. I sat near the women for a few minutes before finally the group began moving to the center of the room to start dancing. I hesitated until one of the women waved at me to come join them.
It very quickly became clear that they were practicing a dance sequence that they had been working on – and they were moving a bit on the fast side for me to keep up! Nonetheless, I kept going, doing the best I could to follow along, and eventually the lady next to me commented that I was doing pretty good for my first time. She introduced herself as Taysia, and told me that she had been coming to the group for 3 years.
With Taysia’s encouragement and the continued dancing, I began to loosen up and feel more comfortable in the group. As we danced, there were many opportunities for laughter as we fumbled with the moves, and many words of encouragement from all around. I learned that the group was planning to perform this Monday at Ashe’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who will finally be completing their ride in New Orleans!
It was clear that many women were still struggling to remember the sequence of movements and perform them all correctly. No matter – we were instructed to OWN our actions: unless we tell the world that we messed up, no one but us will know if we did so. “If you move at the wrong time, pretend like you meant to – make it your own little solo – and no one will know the difference.” She encouraged us to put a little attitude into every movement we made, asserting ourselves and putting our whole energy into the dance.
That night I learned a praise dance, second line (the dance style used to follow the ubiquitous brass marching bands here), and a Congolese dance – all dance forms I had never done before! Throughout it all I felt very welcomed by the group. The evening ended with a meal, and I finally had a chance to chat for a bit with some of the women. It is clear that this is a very supportive group, and I had a lot of fun. Even in just one evening I could see the way in which this program encourages the strength, health, and togetherness of it’s participants. If I were staying in New Orleans I would be back every week!