Wellness, Music Get Top Billing At Black Festival

July 06, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

Standing in a lot next to M&T Bank Stadium, Aaliyah McCray, 12, slipped the blue hula hoop over her head and faced Chris Pierce, 9.

"Ready, set, go!" shouted Ashley Bertrand, who was refereeing the contest. Cheers erupted as the two swung their hoops and began moving their hips, working to keep the rings up.

A few seconds later, the hoops clattered to the ground about the same time.

"A tie," Bertrand said. The two competed again, with Aaliyah eventually winning.

The contest, put on by Maryland Physicians Care's Healthy Groove program, was part of this year's African American Heritage Festival, which celebrates black culture and history. Besides the usual booths of food, carnival rides and abundant musical entertainment - which was to include Anita Baker, R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! and En Vogue - the three-day festival focused on three issues affecting the black community, organizers said: health and wellness, financial literacy and education.

"Our focus is to really help eradicate these disparities in the African-American community," said LaRian Finney, chair and producer of the event.

To that end, Maryland Physicians Care, a managed-care organization, set up health-centered stations that featured the hula hoop competition, as well as Wii video-game bowling and samples of healthily prepared food, including corn on the cob, grilled pineapple, chicken stir-fry and apples with sugar-free caramel syrup - along with recipes. The stations were intended to show people things they can do in everyday life to be healthy, said Carrie Dudley, program coordinator for Healthy Groove.

Jamie Baldwin, 11, said she particularly enjoyed the apple dish. The girl managed to cream her Wii opponent with a strike, after taking her turn with the hula hoop.

"I like coming," Jamie said of the festival, which she attended with her grandparents. "I think it's great."

Roxie McCray, of Bel Air, said she's come regularly for years, and brought her 3-year-old grandson, Christian Vias, along for the first time. "I just like it - all the stands, all the stuff they sell," said McCray, who also competed against her hula-hooping daughter, Aaliyah. McCray collected health information at last year's festival as well.

McCray later ventured inside a tent where an 8-foot-tall, reddish-pink tunnel lured the curious. The Prevent Cancer Foundation's 20-foot-long Super Colon walked people through the stages of colon cancer, from a normal colon to the malignant growths that signal the disease's advanced stage. The disease is the third leading cause of cancer deaths among African-Americans, according to the exhibit.

The huge display helps break the ice on a subject some are reluctant to consider, said Janet Hudson with Prevent Cancer, who added that the disease can be 90 percent preventable, with the help of screenings. "That's what it's all about, getting people talking to one another," she said.

Also amid the displays, musical performances and food, several vendors and participants paid tribute to Michael Jackson: Songs such as "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and other hits occasionally boomed from loudspeakers, and an enterprising few arrived with items commemorating the late singer.

On Saturday, vendor Abdul Hakeen brought 400 shirts of various colors bearing pictures of the "King of Pop." Hakeen left with just two, he said. He arrived with several dozen more yesterday.

"Since Mike passed, we've been selling them everyday," Hakeen said.

Nearby, posters that said "R.I.P. Michael" and "We'll always love you" - with images of Jackson from his earliest and later days - were for sale.

Organizers estimated a crowd of more than 225,000 attended the festival over the weekend - a figure with which they were very pleased, Finney said. "We think it's a home run."

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