Braids of Truth: Urban Bush Women's "Hair and Other Stories"



Urban Bush Women by Hayim Heron
It's never about what it's about: Urban Bush Women used talk of black hairstyles to get at deeper truths. Photo by Hayim Heron.

On Friday, Jan. 12, the Brooklyn-based dance company Urban Bush Women performed Hair and Other Stories at the Power Center courtesy of University Musical Society. The show uses black women’s relationship to their hair to explore larger truths about the society we live in. I am neither particularly fluent in the world of dance performance, nor am I deeply entrenched in the dance world. I am most accurately described as an enthusiastically casual appreciator.

I am, however, well versed in black hair culture. 

This is probably why I should have known that the audience would be expected somehow to participate in the experience. 

Black hair is a contact sport. 

As the audience filed into the auditorium, a dance track played in the background. Before the dancers took to the stage, this sonic choice had already gotten people moving. I’ve never been cool enough to pick up on lyrics the first time I hear a song, but I distinctly heard the words “black like Jesus.”

“Some of you think that you just came here for a show. But I got news for you,” one of the performers said from the stage. Preferring to participate in my mind, this is the sort of thing that usually makes me nervous. Would we be expected to dance? To sing? To talk to our neighbors? The answer to the last question was yes. The delicate jingling of a tambourine sounded from somewhere in the audience. Then the dancer who held it made his way to the stage, letting us all know that we would need to pay attention to what was in front of us and that which is all around us. 

As if trying to keep up with the vibrant, buoyant, and athletic movement on stage, my mind leaped from one mental image to the next. This performance reminded me of so many things. I found myself thinking of Little Richard at some point, the way he unapologetically and enthusiastically addressed the crowd. Maybe it was the quality of a grounded stance that declares its right to be there that reminded me of the self-proclaimed architect of rock 'n' roll and his bright, refreshing acceptance of self. Something about the way these people moved reminded me of the episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air when Aunt Viv (the original) showed off her moves in a dance class. I found myself briefly reminded of Erykah Badu at one point and the music group N.E.R.D. While none of these images are directly related to show, upon reflection, I realized that this performance made me think of any and everything that looks like black people being comfortable in their bodies.

Prior to the show I had read a little bit about the Urban Bush Women and had come to understand that the group “seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.” 

I wonder if the story of black women’s relationship to their hair can ever be truly told. It seems that every black woman can write volumes of personal hair stories. In fact, there is no black woman I know, even marginally well, with whom I haven’t discussed hair at some point.

The performers indicated that the show would get into the thick of the matter of black hair opening by describing the word "nap" as it relates to hair. I confess: This is not a word that I’m fully comfortable with in mixed company. I am only truly comfortable discussing the nap with those people who do not need an explanation. It’s the word that describes tightly curled (or coiled, or zigzagged) African hair.

They ask the audience to say it.

I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

The show goes deeper, describing the meaning of the word "kitchen," not simply as the place where meals are prepared but as the hair at the nape of the neck, which is often where the most tightly coiled hair resides.

The kitchen is also sometimes where hair is done, where people congregate and learn the rituals associated with black hair. It is where experiences are shared. And hurts. I watched the dancers perform movements that were so clearly derived from the styling of black hair, I could almost smell the cooking hair.

There was the specific movement of braiding afro-textured hair, the way that you need to grip it, and pull it and keep the tension even for a neat braid. There is a way that the wrist flicks that was amazing to see depicted on stage in a venue such as the Power Center. They also performed what I can only call the head pat. You might also use the head pat when you have fresh braids in, tight against the scalp, and it is the best, most efficient way to approach an itch. It is also the pat that you might use when you want to scratch your hair but you know that you are going to have your hair relaxed soon. You don’t want to scratch your head before a relaxer; that’s a good way to get your scalp burned. There is a powerful scene in the Malcolm X movie when he gets his hair conked (straightened) for the first time. The audience sees him endure pain in order to let the solution stay on longer. The dancers depicted that same writhing discomfort, that price that you’re willing to pay in order to get your hair just a little bit straighter on stage. I could almost feel the burn.

One of the challenges of belonging to a minority group is knowing which things are parts of the “mainstream” culture and which things are specific to your specific minority culture. After all, in both circumstances these things, these pieces of knowledge, these cultural elements are yours. It is not like you can do genetic sequencing on your cultural DNA. Did everyone in the audience understand the reference to Jheri Curl Juice? Did everyone understand what was happening when one performer called out, “Where is the toothbrush?! Bring the child to me!”

The child in question was the youngest dancer. At times she was in someone’s arms. Other times she seemed to observe. In other moments she seemed to mimic the other dancers. Each time we see her, we are reminded how messages, how cultural knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. The young performer wore a metallic-copper-colored jacket with a design on the back. Was it an eye, symbolizing that children are always watching? A globe representing her role as one of the many members of the worldwide community? Was it literally a target on her back?

I experienced a tension between feeling very seen in the way that so many of us yearn to be and feeling exposed seen, like discovering that your neighbors could see into your bathroom and you had no idea all of those days when you innocently changed clothes in there. When one of the performers read a letter to Madam C.J. Walker, the daughter of recently freed slaves and one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire, I heard my own sharp intake of breath. Walker made her millions on hair products for black hair. Of her, it is said that she gets down to, “The heart of black self-hatred. Our hair.”

Like many people, I often feel like an outsider. This isn’t a complaint, just an observation. I’ve come to enjoy operating on the perimeter of things, but at Hair and Other Stories, I felt was an insider. I understood the unspoken language, the codes. I knew the secret language, the Blue Magic, the Pink Lotion, creamy crack, the Dark and Lovely, the Ecostyler (which I had in my own hair that evening).

There is a part of the show where a black woman gets into the elevator full of black people. We hear a variety of responses to her hair. The scene is repeated, this time, the elevator full of white people. We hear a variety of responses to her. The responses were very different yet similarly invasive. The scene reminded me of Hair Nah, the video game about “a black woman who is tired of people touching her hair." The game is both a sort of release for people who experienced the barrage of unsolicited hair contact and also an illustration that this regularly happens to those who had no idea.

As I looked at the dancers through the different scenes, the way that they moved through the stories, I found myself fixating on the way that race is performed. I looked at these dancers sometimes dancing in unison and other times in more individual fashions and contemplated black movement. I was reminded of a time I was told, “You don’t dance like a black girl. But you don’t dance like a white girl either.” When I tell that story, I joke by asking my audience, “What exactly did he mean by that?” If I’m honest, I know exactly what he meant. Not just skin, hair, and speech are racialized and encoded but movement, too. And bodies. Of the Urban Bush Women, I had read that the company aims to challenge assumptions of, among other things body types.

Toward the end of the show, the performers endeavored to create a space that felt safe for people to have conversations about the issues touched upon in the show. They warned, “Safe space don’t mean comfortable space.”

Again, the audience was asked what they would like to bring to the space and encouraged to contribute words. Among the words from the crowd were: story, dignity, acceptance, love, empowerment, hope, and vulnerability.

If I were the type to yell out a word in this context, I would have added “synthesis.”

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at