Interview with NPR winning essayist, dancer, and entrepreneur Toya Smith Marshall (Part 1 of 2)

To tell the truth, I really struggled with putting this particular interview together.  It’s not at all because of lack of interest, rather, Toya is such a multifaceted, multi-talented young woman.  Capturing all of her interests was perhaps one of my most challenging moments since starting this blog.  I had so much great content, the open canvas of my own blog, and no rules about editing down content that I’ve decided to break this interview into a 2 part series.  You are currently reading Part 1 of 2 which focuses on all of Toya’s passions and pursuitsPart 2 will solely focus on Toya’s perspectives and experiences as a Black woman who chooses to wear her hair natural.

Enjoy!
~Affrodite

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After speaking to Toya a little over a month ago, I was reassured that you can do it all.  If you recall in my promo post, I initially was connected to her through Media Relations at NPR who announced that Toya caught their attention, out thousands of submissions, and her essay entitled “Natural” was selected for NPR’s weekly “This I Believe” segment hosted by Michel Martin.  The original segment aired on Thursday, October 16, 2008, but you can still find it online in their archives by searching for that date or simply clicking HERE.  For ladies who have been along the natural hair journey, no matter where you are in the process, her essay is worth reading as well one of her blogs called The Life Of A Ladybug where you can find, among many other beauty secrets, natural hair care product information.

toya bio

However, Toya’s life does not begin and end with her essay.  She is a mom to a beautiful 5 year old daughter and married to a supportive and loving husband for the past 6 1/2 years.  Just that information alone starts to defy many of the negative stereotypes that plague our community.  A native of Baltimore, Toya  graduated from Western Senior High School- a well respected and one of two all girls public high schools in the country.  From there, Toya pursued her bachelor’s in American Studies (Communications and Popular Culture focus) and a minor in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.  By day, Toya works for the Federal Government.  So many of us stop there, and perhaps Toya would have, too, but the birth of her daughter 5 years ago ignited something in Toya to make some changes from the way she wore her hair to pursuing her passions. When asked how she makes time for everything, Toya laughed and said:

“I don’t know…I’m really busy, but I love everything that I do.  To me, that’s the way to do it.  If you love everything you do, it’s not a chore, it’s not work.  It’s something that I enjoy.”

Later in our conversation, Toya added:

“I could not do what I do if it weren’t for his [her husband’s] hard work and his support…He has things that he’s a part of, and I have to do the same thing for him…We really are a really good team, and I am blessed to have that.”

I hope I manage to give her story justice in this post because I literally left the conversation feeling inspired.  As a woman of color or even just as a woman, there are so many messages and obstacles and expectations that can truly derail you if you let themToya is a fine example of someone who has charted her own course and loving every minute of it.

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How did you get started belly dancing?

“I’ve been dancing for a little over 5 years now…When I got back to work after maternity leave, they were offering a belly dance class in the fitness center at my job.  I just thought that would be something that I would want to do, something different to try to get off the baby weight, you know?  So, I went down and took the class and after the first few classes, the teacher there said to me ‘you seem to have a talent for this, and I really think you should come to my serious class…’

…So, I did start going to her class, and I really enjoyed it.  After a while, she invited me to join the [belly dance] troupe that she had.  I did that for a while, but after a while, I noticed the style that  she was teaching wasn’t really speaking to me much, and I wanted to go a little further.

Right around the same time, I went to a show at the…Baltimore Museum of Art…and in this show was this [belly dance troupe] entirely of Black women.  It was the first time I had ever seen that…So, I said to myself then ‘One day, I want to dance with those girls.’”

Over time, Toya wanted to expand her belly dancing style and approached her instructor…

“She [belly dance instructor] said to me, ‘I know a person that I think you will enjoy.  Her name is Lotus Niraja.  You should go take her classes.’  So, I looked her up.  I went to take her classes, and come to find out this is the same lady that I saw on stage at the museum.

…I took her class for about 2 years and then she had auditions for her troupe.  I was terrified, but my husband talked me into it, and I auditioned for her troupe, and I got in, and that’s when I became a professional dancer.

So, it was like full circle.  I sat in that audience and said, ‘I want to dance with those girls,’ and 2 years later, I was.  So, I’ve been dancing as a part of her troupe for 3 years, and I’ve also been a soloist outside of the troupe…”

Do you have a dance background?

“I have never done any serious kind of dance training.  This is my very first entrance into serious dance.”

How do you all get along personally?

“It’s a sisterhood.  It’s a family…We travel together.  We stay together.  We dance together.  At this point, we’re pretty much each other’s closest friends.”

How frequently do you practice?

“We’re in rehearsal at a minimum of twice a week, and when we’re [preparing] for a show, we’re in rehearsal up to 5 times a week.”

The troupe of 6 beautiful women is called the Niraja Dance Company (NDC) and is based in Baltimore, Maryland.  All of the dancers in the troupe are women of African descent, making them the only troupe, in this dance form, of its kind.  NDC has performed all across the US and has plans to expand its reach through performances in Canada next year.  Ultimately, the troupe aspires to tour globally.

For more information on Niraja Dance Company, go to:

www.thendc.net

or to

lotusniraja.com

where you can navigate to information about the NDC or their instructor Lotus Niraja.  Toya dances under the name “Makeda Maysá” (Makeda is the name of one of her blogs, discussed later in this article).  They have also been featured on several DVDs for the International Academeny of Middle Eastern Dance.  If you do a search for “Lotus Niraja” on youtube, you will find several of their performances online.  I have included one below:


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toya-makeup-artistry2Toya has enjoyed wearing and experimenting with makeup since she was a little girl.  She now runs her own makeup artistry business called Makeda Makeup Artistry- makedamakeupartistry.com.

When did you decide to become a professional makeup artist?

“I’ve been doing makeup professionally about as long as I’ve been belly dancing…Again, not too long after my daughter was born that I decided that I didn’t want to fall into just being ‘Mommy’ and nothing else.  I wanted to continue to pursue what I enjoy.  So, I decided to go to a local school to get my makeup artistry license…I started out as a freelancer because I didn’t want to be tied down to any one brand.  I didn’t want to have to market or sell any one brand.  So as a freelance artist, I can use whatever I like.”

Who are your clients?

“I do a lot of proms and weddings…I also do classes/workshops where ladies just want to go in and learn to do a certain look or just want help on how to do their own makeup.  I also do shopping trips with ladies because they just don’t know what kind of [makeup] looks best on them.  I will even go to the store with them and say ‘this is really what you need to look your best.'”

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CB103039 Follow Me on Pinterest Along the same vein as her makeup artistry, Toya also maintains a beauty blog called The Life Of A Ladybug- lifeofaladybug.typepad.com.  This blog is her original blog, launched about 3 years ago, that eventually evolved its content to be solely about beauty.

Tell me about your beauty blog, The Life of a Ladybug.

“I talk about lots of the different products that are out on the market and whether or not those products are good for women of color- what they can offer, what they can’t offer.”

Included in The Life of A Ladybug are a few different series.  I’ve summarized them below for you.  Check her Categories when you get to her blog as well.

  1. Affordable Alternatives.  In this series, Toya takes an expensive cosmetic product and offers a comparable product at a more affordable price point.
  2. Bronzers for Brown Girls.  With bronzers being a popular option, many women of color have struggled with how to best use them considering they already have skin within the bronze range of tones.
  3. Ladybug Love features products that are Toya’s favorites.
  4. Natural Hair Care Products features products that work well with women of African descent with natural hair.

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toya-makedamaysa-avatarToya’s other blog is called “Makeda.” This is Toya’s second blog, launched about a year ago, as an outgrowth of the first one.  After deciding to make the focus of her Life Of A Ladybug blog about beauty, Makeda became her new blog to focus on all of her other interests. You’ll see the name Makeda used in Toya’s makeup artistry business and belly dancing which had me curious as to the significance of the name to her.

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Why did you choose the name Makeda for your blog?

“It was the proper name of the Queen of Sheba, and I’ve been fascinated with her my whole life, since I was a little girl.”

Makeda means “beautiful,” and if you’d like to learn more about the history of the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, I’m starting you out with a wikipedia link HERE.

The blog Makeda covers:

  1. Updates on her involvement as a professional belly dancer
  2. Politics
  3. Pop Culture
  4. Issues facing the Black community

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This ends the first part of our interview.  The next post (coming soon!), as described at the beginning of this post, will feature our intriguing discussion on natural hair.

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