June 23, 2009

There’s nothing like dancing with your hair down: bouncy waves trailing as you leap across stage, free-flowing locks swooping with each head roll, flirty bangs flopping in your eyes—or the oh-so-enjoyable way it sticks to your lip gloss through an entire piece. Well, sometimes letting your hair out is not quite as easy as it seems. Choreographers in all dance styles—ballet, modern, musical theater, dance team—not only choose particular hair-dos, but they also actually choreograph hair movements. Get ready for this…it’s called HAIROGRAPHY.


Thanks to some in-depth research and a little help from the pros, we’ve figured out what hairography is, who uses it, how it affects dancers and how it has changed over the years. Time to put the bobby pins away!

Hair History

Dance has many origins around the world, but since ballet is home base for Western concert dance, let’s start there. Ballet began in 16th-century French courts as a form of entertainment for the king and his followers. Dancers wore wigs and masks, and their bodies were fully covered.


By the 1800s, ballet was what we know today—pointe shoes, tutus and low buns. This was the Romantic period and ballerinas represented sylphs and fairies, imagined ideals of women. Throughout Europe and America, real women rarely wore their hair down in public. Pulled-back hair was a sign of formality and respect. Ballet mirrored this formal society in its portrayal of romantic relationships and feminine beauty.


Just imagine the shock when Isadora Duncan came to stage in the early 1900s, barefoot, wearing loose tunics with hair flowing! She and other free spirits paved the way for modern dancers to break ballet’s rules. Today, even in contemporary ballets, there are no hairography boundaries!


Successful hairographers know a thing or two about what hair means in our social world. “Hair is powerful in communicating a certain emotional state or situation,” says Pascal Rekoert, dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works and choreographer for his own company, Flexicurve. “When someone touches their hair, it often represents sexuality.” History books concur. Long hair stereotypically separates women from men, and, historically, shinier and fuller hair is considered more attractive. When the bob became fashionable in the 1920s, women proved that short hair could still be sexy—but not without causing a lot of commotion. Long, straight hippie hair in the late 1960s and ’70s was a countercultural movement demonstrating sexual freedom. Think about it: Your own hair style, whether punky or conservative, probably affects how you feel about your own persona, both onstage and off!

Bye-Bye Buns

While you won’t see many wild hair-dos in classical story ballets today, there are several hair-down moments. A ballerina with The Joffrey Ballet since 2000, Valerie Robin performed Lady Capulet (Juliet’s mother) in Romeo and Juliet. During most of the ballet, she wears a large headpiece, but when Tybalt dies, she mourns with her hair out in curls. “She lets her hair down to show madness and release hysteria,” says Robin.  


Sound familiar? In Giselle’s famous “mad scene,” Giselle goes crazy because her lover is marrying another woman, so she pulls out her bun. She twirls her hair, smoothes it back, thrashes it and even lets it sit on her face. At the time these ballets premiered (1800s), it was unheard of to see a woman in public with loose hair, so it was a tool for choreographers to portray insanity.


Loose hair can also depict romance and intimacy. Look at the bedroom pas de deux in Romeo and Juliet. Juliet almost always wears her hair in a loose half-ponytail with curls, and Romeo caresses her hair, showing they are free in their private moment.

The Way Hair Moves

While hairography is more hidden in ballet, you don’t have to look hard for it in musicals, commercial and contemporary dance. Broadway legend Bob Fosse loved making hair move. “Rich Man’s Frug,” a dance in Sweet Charity, includes a female lead wearing a long, black, fake ponytail. “The ponytail girl has to whip the hair in a circle with head rolls,” explains Dana Moore, a Broadway and Fosse veteran who danced this role in the 1980s revival.


“Once I practiced with the ponytail in rehearsal, I realized I had to get my neck muscles in shape!” Many musicals use wigs or hairpieces in a similar way, so they must be tightly secured to allow for safe head-whipping.


Speaking of head rolls, check out any Britney, Beyoncé, Shakira or J.Lo music video and count how many times their hair whips around. Also, remember Courtney G. and Mark on “So You Think You Can Dance” last season performing “The Garden”? Choreographed by Sonya Tayeh—who sports a hardcore femme-mohawk—it had fierce head-banging moments, creating a sexy, raw feeling that wowed the audience and judges. Twenty-three-year-old Knicks City Dancer and captain Michelle Caputo says, “Choreographers want our hair to go up and over to the other side, making our movements bigger and stronger. Plus it looks awesome to have everyone’s hair move together.”


Modern dance also gets creative points for using hairography, often to tell a political or personal narrative, and to connect the audience to the movement. Rekoert used a female dancer’s long hair as inspiration in PhOeNix, a solo he created. “I wanted her to look out of control and inhuman. Letting her hair down turned her into a wild amazon woman.” Urban Bush Women, another modern company, performs a piece called Hair Stories, based on African American experiences and struggles with hair. The section “Hot Comb Blues” shows the dancers pulling and scrubbing each other’s hair.


Most dancers rehearse and take class with pulled-back hair. This is the most efficient way to work on technique, especially in ballet class, because you won’t be distracted by loose hair. But if modern and jazz teachers allow it, start letting your hair down once in a while to see how it affects your movement. You can feel Isadora’s freedom or Fosse’s sexiness, Giselle’s madness or Juliet’s romance—all with just a little hairography!


Photo: Herbert Migdoll