Braid new world

Dana "Isis" Brantley believes in the orderly design of things. You can see it in the intricate braid creations she designs in the hair of African-American women from across Dallas.

So it is no accident that, for more than a year, Brantley has been fighting with state regulators to preserve her 15-year livelihood and retain what she sees as her cultural heritage. Now the fighting is nearly over, and Brantley is ready to accept an olive branch from the state.

Brantley has waged a near-one-woman battle with the Texas Cosmetology Commission over her ability to continue braiding hair in her Ancestral Braiding Studio in Oak Cliff. Because she did not agree that hair braiding should be subject to state licensing laws, she has been fined and has had her studio shut down for months. Brantley and other braiders from around the state have responded by agitating for special recognition from the commission so they can continue practicing their craft in peace, without fear of being shut down.

The long-fought battle may finally end in February, when the commission is expected to adopt new rules governing hair braiders. Brantley and her colleagues will get their peace, but at a price.

The commission is expected to adopt rules requiring that hair braiders participate in 300 hours of training in order to receive specialty licenses to practice the craft. Most of the classes will be taught in beauty schools or hair salons that already teach hair weaving.

While she isn't overjoyed by the prospect, Brantley says she will take the classes and obtain the specialty license which the state will require. All she wants is to stay in business, and she is tired of jousting with the state.

"I'm not willing at this point to fight the state on this issue" any longer, Brantley says. "At this point, I am willing to do what I need to do to continue my career. I have five children, and this is the way I feed them."

Brantley first ran afoul of the cosmetology commission in 1995, when a competing hair salon turned her in for braiding hair without a license. Brantley contended that she didn't need a license because braiding is a cultural art form. It was something handed down to her from her African ancestors, Brantley has said. She still feels that way.

"This is an African art form, not a technique that is taught and understood to be a craft," she says.

The craft has grown substantially over the years and is now a lucrative business. There are many braiders in the Dallas area who are "underground," women who braid hair for friends and strangers in their homes.

Dick Strader, executive director of the state Cosmetology Board, says the new licensing requirements won't reach the underground braiders. But established businesses like Brantley's will be subject to the regulations, and the licensing requirements may soon get even tougher.

The Texas Legislature is expected to take up a bill this session which would increase the number of hours of training to 600, Strader says.

The problem with the new rules, as Brantley sees it, is that the specialty license requirements don't make any sense since there aren't enough people who can teach braiding. Braiding requires knowledge of how to twist together a person's hair and extensions into complicated patterns. The rule being considered by the cosmetology board will have braiders taking courses on hair weaving, which is a completely different technique. "What do weavers know about braiding?" she says.

Brantley says that braiders have brought to cosmetology a new level of design, style, and versatility unseen since the early days of black hair care. "This is the same contribution to the industry that Madame C.J. Walker made 100 years ago by introducing straightening products," she says.

But reservations aside, Brantley is ready to give up her battle.
Since the clash between culture and commodity came to a head, she has been cited by the state three times for practicing cosmetology without a license. To have obtained a standard cosmetology license, Brantley and other braiders would have been required to undergo 1,500 hours of course work, at a cost of thousands of dollars. Brantley says she would have learned a great deal about dealing with chemical applications for hair, but little to nothing about braiding.

At first, Brantley seems an unlikely fighter. The small-framed woman with delicate features has a voice that verges on high and breathy. Yet there is a strength to her, and a passion when she talks about braiding. She believes she was chosen to fight with the cosmetology commission to help braiders and women all over Texas.

"I think that I made a mark," Brantley says of her fight with the commission. "I made a very big step for African-American women. I am glad it happened and glad they chose me as someone capable enough of challenging them. I did it with the strength of my ancestors."

At one point in the struggle, Brantley was taken to court and fined $600 for braiding without a license. When she still refused to obtain one, she says the state shut down her studio for months. She lost much of the customer base she had built up over 15 years and is still trying to recover from the loss in business.

"It is really hard to come back at this point," she says. "But I am open and am working."

In February 1996, the commission declared a moratorium on citing unlicensed braiders after a delegation of them lobbied the board for more lenient rules. That lobbying effort prompted the commission to develop the new rules it expected to adopt in early February.

Brantley says she doesn't mind the special license, but still feels that what she had to go through was unfair. She wonders why she and other braiders weren't grandfathered in with the rule changes in the same way that nail sculpting studios have been. But overall, she says her fight made a point.

And some good has come from this. Brantley says she has worked out a deal with a hair salon to actually teach braiding courses in exchange for her 300 hours of service, since most hair styling schools do not have any knowledge about braiding. She thinks that perhaps it could be a new calling.

"I am definitely open to teaching braiding," she says. "Perhaps it is time for me to come from behind the chair.


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