I met Fleuretta (Flo) Waltrous, owner of Flo’s Body Shop, during our first year in law school at Howard University. We both live in Brooklyn, New York, and our shared interests in dance, fitness, arts and culture, which became our bond in law school, have kept us connected for more than 30 years. Today, Flo leads international yoga, Pilates and fitness retreats for a predominantly African-American and Afro-Caribbean community of students.
I am writing about Flo because her fitness and wellness tours are a unique and illuminating bridge to the arts and culture of the African Diaspora. Over the past nine years, she has taken more than 300 students to a vast array of countries, including Cambodia, India, New Zealand and Columbia, and helped them learn about the African diasporic connection to each country they visit.
Flo’s form of audience cultivation and development includes making these tours accessible by offering installment plans and long-term savings initiatives. This allows her to tap into a pool of people who, years ago, would have never imagined they could afford to travel internationally, let alone visit so many different countries. Flo’s tours are more than travel—they provide enrichment of the mind, body and spirit. She spends a great deal of time doing research and carefully planning each aspect of the retreat. Consequently, participants in Flo’s tours become not only more conscientious about their health and well-being, but they also become more aware of the life-enrichment gained from traveling to different locales and learning about different cultures.
The seeds that Flo plants with her tours, continue flourishing when the students return home. They individually seek opportunities for more arts and cultural exchanges; they attend openings, as well as theatrical performances.
I am honored to share with you and reprint with permission an interview of Flo about the cultural enrichment program she developed for Flo’s Body Shop, which was posted on AltruVistas, established by Malia Everette, who is the CEO and Founder
Hi Flo! How did you start leading international journeys?
Fleuretta (Flo) Waltrous: I was studying and training for my 500-hour teacher training with Yoga Alliance, doing it with Shiva Rea. And she would travel all over the world and do trainings. I traveled and went to the most wonderful places—but I was the only black person! There would be 60-80 people and it would be just my daughter and myself who were black. So that’s how the framework started in my mind. I talked with Shiva and she offered me guidance: “Make the first one very inexpensive,” she said.
So, I set up my first retreat in Brazil. I used a travel agent who’d been referred to me by a friend. Thank God there were only five people on that trip, because the agent defrauded us! The trip cost $2,000 per person, and I put that all on my credit card. We did the trip, and it was wonderful, but it took a year for me to pay myself back.
After that: No more travel agents. I did everything myself: booked trips, reserved space—I learned how to do everything. We went to Curacao, Panama, Cuba, Dominica.
I connected with Malia when she was with Global Exchange, because they did our first Cuba trip for us. Then Malia did our second Cuba trip, to Santiago/Old Habana, after she’d started AltruVistas. Then together, we went to Southeast Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos. Then to Australia; and most recently, to Cartagena, Colombia.
You often travel to places whose history is part of the African Diaspora. Can you talk more about this?
Flo: Yes. Many of the countries we visit have some nexus to black people being brought from Africa. I research and specifically look for some type of African nexus so that we can go and learn from each other and understand one another’s struggles. When we travel, we’re able to see how resilient the elders were in keeping and passing on the African traditions. For example, a lot of the enslaved Africans in Cartagena, Colombia, were from Congo. When we saw them dance, there was a lot of movement in the hips like in Congolese dancing.
On our Colombia trip, we also visited Palenque. We had to go, because of the history. Malia had made an arrangement for one of the elders to teach us; to lecture on the history. I do a lot of research to prepare for my trips—so some of what he said I’d known before we left stateside, but there was also some information I didn’t know. Others in my group didn’t know the history at all and were there as blank pages. Just to see them listening, to hear their questions, to see the excitement—it was wonderful to watch.
We went to our guide’s house for a cooking class. We cooked in the yard the same way my elders did in Barbados, grating the coconut with the grater, pounding with the mortar and pestle, the same thing. When I traveled to Senegal, I saw that too—food is prepared the same way that my elders from Barbados prepared it.
In Palenque, we had the best lunch. Everyone got their own huge, fried tilapia. It was delicious. We were eating together; engaging with the people. They were stunned to see how we could dance with the drums—surprised to see how the music was not really foreign to us. So, when we travel, we’re able to see the similarities; the cultural frameworks—both ways. The surprise goes both ways at the similarities. It’s heartening.
It was also important for us to observe Palenque in comparison to Cartagena. In Palenque, there were no sidewalks, just red dirt. It reminded me of neighborhoods in New York that aren’t yet gentrified. No matter where you are in the world, the money doesn’t go to black neighborhoods.
We also went to La Boquilla, and the people there were talking with us about racism: They have a bad reputation, and tourists don’t want to come to their neighborhood. Child, please. We went right there, had a jewelry-making class, listened to their stories, danced together. They were so happy we were there. We were so happy to be there, to buy their T-shirts and give them money. You do what you can to effectuate change.