Braiding her doll's hair as a little girl in Dakar gave Aida Thiaw, now living 4,000 miles away from home, the nimble fingers that support her today.
Like generations of African women before her — back to the fashionistas of ancient Egyptians — Thiaw plaits, or braids, by intertwining three sections of hair. She adds length by braiding in real or synthetic hair extensions. Weaving multiple braids together elaborates the look.
There is no formal training, "just watching my cousin," said Thiaw, who opened Aida's Hair Braiding on W Waters Avenue in May. "Every little girl learns how, not for money, to do it for family and friends."
In Africa, styles vary by tribe and village, with some ethnicities recognizable by their braids.
"Every braider has her own style, like handwriting," says Thiaw, 33. "But now it's like rap: Everybody imitates everyone else.
"But Senegalese do it the best," she insists. "I don't know why, but they do."
Thiaw is proficient in most styles: microbraids, bobs, kinky twist (short and layered), cornrows (sometimes 100 or more), Senegalese twists, (long and one length), updo crown, goddess braid, Mohawk and fishtail (looks like it sounds).
African-American women — men, too — may seek braids to get in touch with their roots, literally, but also for ease of care. Most styles last two or three months, and require only occasional braiding spray or refreshing with oil sheen.
No chemicals are used, Thiaw says. Unlike many black beauty salons, braiding parlors don't relax or straighten hair.
In exchange for that zero maintenance comes a huge upfront time commitment.
"Micro and pixie braids take about eight hours. A twist needs 10 hours but stays many weeks," Thiaw said.
Could that be what new mother/superstar Beyoncé was thinking when she had honey-colored extensions wrapped into a crown this summer?
With each client taking as much as a day, Thiaw rewards customer loyalty. Appointments that show up late, or not at all, affect her earnings.
"If they're on time," she says, "I give you my heart."
• • •
On a recent Sunday, Keke Powell swiveled into a chair at 9:30 a.m. and barely moved till 5:30 p.m.
Braid, braid, braid, braid, knot. Braid, braid, braid, knot. Sitting, standing and hovering, Thiaw with her long dark fingers never stopped tying Powell's own hair into 18-inch store-bought lengths.
Born in the Virgin Islands, Powell, 33, said she learned patience getting cornrows — guineas, she calls them — as a little girl in St. John. "It's the custom. Even white tourists like it," said Powell, who advises students on university financial aid programs.
"Thank goodness for the TV," she said, one eye on a soap opera and another on her young daughter.
Thiaw is not one to pass the time with gossip, as her Muslim religion frowns on it. Back home, she said, braiding around the family table, "we are saying nothing and everything at the same time."
Prices are set by the size and number of braids and length of the client's hair. Microbraids start at $150; Senegalese twists start at $200. Increased competition has brought prices down, Thiaw said. She estimates there are at least a dozen braiders in Tampa.
Licensing in Florida requires a two-day course on such topics as sanitation, HIV/AIDS and scalp disorders and is overseen by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
"The inspector came my first day here," Thiaw recalled. Licenses are renewable every two years with 16 hours of continuing education credits.
Other states have passed laws requiring braiders to graduate from cosmetology school in order to be licensed. Tuition may be out of reach for many in the industry, especially newly arrived African immigrants, who quietly turned to providing their services at clients' homes.
• • •
Thiaw arrived in New York at age 21 and found work braiding hair in Brooklyn. The owner, who also had a shop in Tampa, became her mentor, eventually encouraging her to move here in 2001. A few years later, Thiaw went independent. She rented a booth in another shop for seven years before going out on her own three months ago.
Her husband, Cheikh, still lives and works in New York, but he visits her and their 9-month-old daughter, Fatima, in their apartment near Carrollwood often.
Time flies faster than Thiaw's fingers. Will she encourage Fatima to learn the tradition of braiding as she grows up?
"No, not like me," she said, emphatically. "She was born here and she will go to school here. She can be president if she wants, because I will put her on the right start."