When people think of dance, their minds frequently revert to the classic “bun head image.” Whenever I see a prima ballerina with her hair gelled to perfection I have flashbacks of a six-year-old mini-me being screamed at for my untamed “wispies.”
I liked the wispies though because I felt like they illuminated my character. They stuck out like devious little weeds that were rebellious by nature. And while I appreciated my flyaway hairs, I still admired the bun heads because it seemed like a bun head had her life together. She showed up on time, came warmed up, and had a well-prepared breakfast. Fittingly with my hair, I sprinted in with a waffle in hand, no utensils, my hair askew, and a coffee stain to give my pale pink tights a bit more color. It was quite literally and metaphorically like my hair and life were being held together by a single bobby pin.
Since committing myself to the dance world, I pay special attention to how choreographers style their dancers’ hair. From a feminist perspective, hair serves as a symbol to contribute to the image and sexuality of women. Most often it evokes defiance or compliance to the societal norm.
In Disney’s Mulan, Mulan’s disobedient curl dangling in front of her face symbolizes a divergence from the prescribed social order of China (where a tight chignon was the desired aesthetic.) In America, popular hairstyles like the 1920’s bob and 1970’s long, natural look were counterculture movements to embrace a new style of beauty that corresponded with the changing role of women. In a religious context, covering or choosing not to cut the hair may be connoted with purity or modesty, saintliness, or downplaying sexuality.
All these things considered, hair clearly plays a major role in illuminating sexuality through culture and inevitably dance. The bun head ballerina image that developed in the 1800’s arose to fit the ephemeral standards and expected protocol of how respectable women wore their hair throughout Europe and America. Mary Wigman’s famous Witch Dance featured dark, wild hair that contradicted all expectations of how westernized women should look. It had a more edgy, anti-aesthetic look that challenged how female bodies could be viewed on stage.
In cultural dances like the Brazilian “forbidden dance” known as Zouk, close proximity, sensual hair flicks, and touching the hair are all characteristics of the genre. In belly dancing, women generally wear their hair long and down to emphasize gender differences. Even dance teams like the Miami Heat and other commercial dancers frequently use hair as an appendage in what’s best known as “Hairography.”
Finally, if you haven’t jammed to Willow Smith’s “Whip my Hair” behind your shower curtain then I strongly advise it. Just as Willow Smith proudly reiterates, hair is a deliberate reflection on identity and can be a tool that demonstrates freedom, liberation, confinement, and all kinds of other abstract concepts.
Not only do the aesthetics of hair change over time but they also point toward social orders. For this reason, hair contributes to dance and shapes how we view identity, sexuality, and people in general. As Willow Smith puts it, “All my ladies if you feel it go and do it, do it. Whip your hair, whip your hair. Don’t matter if it’s long, short. Do it, do it whip your hair.”
My hair is held together by a single bobby pin, filled with wispies and rebellious stray hairs. Some dancers like to whip it. Others like to clip it. Each choice onstage says something about our identity and sexuality. So when you’re deciding how to go onstage, what makes the cut?