Assatou Balde's hands flick smoothly back and forth above her client's partially uncovered head, quickly weaving strands of hair called microbraids and affixing them to the woman's natural hair.
Next to her, Nene Balde goes through a similar process while braiding the locks of another customer. The two sisters' hands twist and pull with silent, hand-over-hand movements they learned long ago and now come to them like a reflex.
But above the quiet artistry at Nene's Hair Braiding in West Philadelphia, rising over the sounds of a soap opera blaring in the background, simmers a burgeoning debate over a new state law that will require hair braiders to get special licenses.
"She got licensed to braid my hair when I paid her," Tasha Budd, 27, called out as Assatou Balde began the hours-long process of putting the tiny braids in her hair. "Why do you need a license in 2006 when they've been braiding all these years? They just want your money."
Supporters say the special licenses will keep braiders from getting unfair fines of up to $1,000 for not being licensed cosmetologists. But there is tension in the braiding community nationwide as some say the government is targeting an African art and may put immigrant braiders out of business.
At Nene's, braids like the ones Budd was getting cost between $140 to $160 for a process that can take five or six hours; cornrows come in at $50. Since the regulations haven't been finalized, the state hasn't determined exactly how much the permit and educational classes would cost.
Some also worry about the plight of immigrant braiders who came to America with very little to their name and often don't speak the English, a skill they would likely need to get through certification classes.
"They came here with that craft," said Bertina Pelzer as she worked on a client's hair at Duafe Holistic Hair Care in North Philadelphia. "That is their only means of getting any sort of income."
Pennsylvania is the latest state to step into the debate over braiding. Nine others, including New York, Florida, Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana, have special braiding licenses. Others, including Arizona, California, Kansas and Maryland, exempt braiders from cosmetology laws.
In Mississippi last year, the state removed a requirement for African-style braiders to have either a 1,500-hour cosmetology license or a 300-hour wig-specialist license. Braiders had called the licenses expensive and irrelevant. Under a new law, professional braiders have to take a self-guided test and pay a $25 fee; they also receive a brochure about sanitation.
The owner of Duafe, Syreeta Scott, believes there should be some sort of code of conduct for braiders, but has mixed feelings on the law. She recently had to let some braiders go, in part because they didn't want to get the hair-braiding license.
The law, which went into effect earlier this month, requires 300 hours of training through the state's Board of Cosmetology. If a braider can prove he or she has been practicing for at least three years, only 150 hours of training would be required.
Fines against braiding establishments have also ceased and now the Pennsylvania Department of State has 18 months to come up with specific braiding regulations, said State Rep. Rosita Youngblood, a Philadelphia Democrat who supported the legislation. Before the change, the law considered braiders to be cosmetologists and required them to have the associated 1,250 hours of training.
At Kinky Creation in the East Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, owner Jena Rogers said she understands the concerns of braiders who object to the licensing requirements.
"People look at braiding as a craft. It's like a God-given talent, so why pay taxes for something that's a craft or a gift?" Rogers said. "People like being underground."
Nevertheless, the licensing is a step forward for the profession, she said, one that will help ensure that braiders know more about sanitation and the various related medical conditions such as alopecia, a scalp problem caused by braiding too tight.
It also means the fines will stop. From 2000 through 2005, more than 30 citations were issued to braiders in the Philadelphia area for unlicensed activity, according to the Hairbraider's Association of Philadelphia and Vicinity.
"There's no real health and safety issue here," said Valerie Bayham, staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, a Washington-area group that has challenged state braiding laws across the country.
The regulation will put road blocks in front of people trying to earn a living, she said: "This is not chump change. It's a lot of money and a lot of time."
She pointed to states such as Florida and South Carolina have shorter programs geared toward health and safety. Kansas and Mississippi issue a one-page flier that needs to be posted in salons.
Pelzer counts herself among those torn over Pennsylvania's new law.
It's not a bad thing for customers to know their braider has been trained in their craft, she said. She also does believe braiders should be paying taxes and know about sanitary rules.
But can a school effectively teach part of a culture that is passed down through generations, learned on front stoops and sidewalks?
"With this, they're trying to take it away," Pelzer said as she starts locks on Charity Bell's hair. "Some of this stuff you can't be taught. When it's cultural, it's within, raised up in you."
Some see the change as a perfect example of government stomping on ethnic tradition.
"I think it's like stepping into our culture," Bell chimed in.
Supporters, however, point out that there can be serious problems if people are not properly trained how to braid. Braiding too tight can cause her to fall out.
Amadou Balde, the owner of Nene's Hair Braiding and the father of Assatou and Nene, said he thinks the state's original cosmetology license requirement was unfair. But now that the license is specifically for braiders, people should do their best to comply, he said.
"Go learn some English and try to pass the test," said Balde, who moved to the U.S. from Senegal in 1987. "We are not in Africa anymore, we are here."