Interview with Ian Abbott (Writing About Dance) – Personal musings about dance and other related topics (Sept 5th 2016). What I offer here is an outsider’s inside perspective; as Uchenna Dance (UD) prepare to premiere The Head Wrap Diaries on September 19 at The Place, here is a series of observations on the company from within the dance studio peppered with reflections on the wider context of the history and debate around black female hair.
Led by Vicki Igbokwe, UD has three clear values that drive the company and its work: empowerment, education and entertainment. The intention behind The Head Wrap Diaries is to tell the stories of three female characters who explore community, heritage, womanhood and friendship. The temperature, tone and mood of the studio is inclusive, generous and nurturing, feelings Igbokwe has spent time honing since she realised as a dancer that her best work would come when she was being fed as an individual and not having a choreographer “put the fear of god into you; rather than doing my best work, I was just thinking don’t fuck up.” With Ingrid MacKinnon as rehearsal director and a cast of Shanelle Clemenson, Sheila Attah and Habibat Ajayi as performers/creative collaborators, Igbokwe has brought four women who are not only fine individual dancers, but are also her ‘hair crushes’. Each has a depth and connection to dance and hair as well as a clear idea of self and each is engaged in a wider conversation. This provocative debate hinges on whether those who decide to wear their hair straightened are less ‘Black’ or ‘proud’ of their heritage than those who decide to wear their hair naturally.
Attah offers an elegant opening frame: “It’s like our hair stands up towards the sun rather than falling. Black women should judge beauty and be judged by our own goalposts rather than by others’ prescribed ideals. I’ve graduated in life to my sistalocks (a fine type of dreadlocks) and they represent a cumulation of my experience.” She has also created Hair The Beat with her sistas, Jodie-Simone and Denise, to challenge the feminist beauty ideals that are perpetuated by the western media. There’s a real street savvy and popping snap to Attah’s physicality (she’s danced with Birdgang in the past) mixed with articulate passion and an awareness of the politics of black female hair.
Natural afro-textured hair was transformed in the 1960s from an expression of style to a political statement. Prior to this, the idealised black person (especially women) had many Eurocentric features, including hairstyles. Black activists in the USA infused straightened hair with political significance: some came to associate the straightening of one’s hair in an attempt to simulate ‘whiteness’, whether chemically or with the use of heat, with an act of self-hatred and a sign of internalised oppression imposed by white mainstream culture.
Each of the dancers has their own hair story to tell. “I’ve had two sets of dreads in my life and when I had my first set I was asked if I would cut them off as it was making it difficult to fit the hairpiece I was supposed to be wearing,” relates McKinnon. Her role is a crucial one in the company. She is the sifter, the detail merchant, the one who shines the grand images that emerge from Igbokwe’s mind to reveal their lustre; often making quiet but incisive interjections when a dancer is feeling stuck on a particular task. Together they try to unlock personal histories to connect the dancers to their own lived experience which will result in a deeper emotional connection to their choreographic material.
Igbokwe conceived The Head Wrap Diaries in 2014 as a response to her own personal hair journey and a desire to celebrate women and hair. It is currently being refined, shown and will add to a live debate that is currently taking place via news outlets and social media. A number of South African teenage girls at Pretoria Girls High School have been told this week that their natural hair is ‘untidy’ and ‘unkempt’ prompting major international outcry and online campaigns (visit #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh to follow the discussion) forcing the school in question to suspend the code of conduct clause that deals with hairstyles. It has even reached government level with the Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthetwha, offering this response: “Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African Identity.” I would love to see the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, make it to The Head Wrap Diariesand engage with not only the performance but the pre-show multi-sensory installation in the bar that Igbokwe has curated in collaboration with students from Central St Martins.
Ajayi, who grew up in a Muslim country, wore a hijab for the first years of her life and it was her mother who took more pride in her hair than she did. Having relaxed her hair until she was 25, once at university she began spending £130 of her student loan every fortnight on her hair; her mother would have to pre-load a cash card to make sure she had enough for her education. Ajayi struggled with confidence in her technical ability as she embarked on a performing arts degree at university rather than at a conservatoire. Igbokwe and MacKinnon provide consistent reassurance: “You have technique for days,” they told her, and it shows. She has a natural facility (she danced for Clod Ensemble recently) and a performance magnetism that emanates when she’s comfortable with the material and how she presents it.
There is a rich history of black female hair over the last two centuries that has rarely been recorded from a black female perspective; historically, sub-Saharan Africans (as in every culture) developed hairstyles that defined status in regards to age, wealth, social rank, marital status, fertility, adulthood, and death. The social implications of hair grooming were a significant part of life and dense, thick, clean, and neatly groomed hair was something sought after by slave traders. Helen Bradley Griebel has written a comprehensive history, The African American Woman’s Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols, which traces the potency and symbolism of a piece of cloth that has had many names over the years: head rag, head tie, head handkerchief, turban and head wrap. I read the essay before I stepped into the studio with Uchenna as I hadn’t had a personal connection with head wraps before; after reading it I had a clearer understanding of the social, political and historical power behind this crucial piece of clothing which is so central to The Head Wrap Diaries.
Clemenson also has a rich hairstory to tell: “My mum had a friend who would do my canerows, so as a teenager growing up in the 90s I had the right hook up and all my friends were asking where I got it from; I also went through my emo phase and died it black and purple too.” However something changed when she went to the USA in 2008. “I was with a friend and had phoned my mum to say that I was going to have a short cut (I didn’t tell her when) and she said I shouldn’t. My friend said I might as well do it, you’re here and back home in the UK other voices would try and dissuade me from doing it. 31st May 2008. I’ve been short ever since and I feel it is me.” Clemenson has a formidable technique in waacking and voguing; in some of the hip hop choreography set by Igbokwe, Clemenson adds lashings of personal style, performance swag and attitude; if you look up the word fierce in the dictionary don’t be surprised to find a picture of her.
In many traditional cultures communal grooming was a social event when a woman could socialize and strengthen bonds with other women and their families. UD provides a similar social fabric that supports each of the women in the creative team; they’ve been together for a while having all played a part in the last UD production Our Mighty Groove (also touring this Autumn). The inclusivity practiced by UD extends to welcoming MacKinnon’s 7-month-old son who joined us in the studio each day. He has a particular penchant for the melodic and lyrical flow of several Brandy tracks and his presence adds a positive familial energy as the dancers lavish him with attention throughout breaks and lunch times.
During the first period of R&D for The Head Wrap Diaries last summer, UD shared about 20 minutes of material with an audience. Afterwards Igbokwe was asked a question: ‘How can I relate to the work if I do not have black female hair?’ I wondered if anyone would complain to James Wilton they couldn’t relate to the work of Herman Melville, sailors and a giant whale, or to Alexander Whitley about the difficulty of relating to a series of dancing lasers and motion-responsive technology without the relevant experience. There is something much more than the question of black female hair in UD’s work: The Head Wrap Diaries is a set of interwoven stories — sometimes humorous and light, at other times serious — that ask us to consider ourselves, our hair and our own communities. There is plenty of cold, esoteric and indulgent contemporary dance and theatre being produced in the UK but from what I’ve seen in the studio, UD is delivering in spades on their values; hair and community will resonate with many different people and will attract a wider audience to performance who will not only see themselves in the stories but, as anyone who has experienced the indignity of outrageous school hairstyles or home-cut fringes, may want to actively share parts of their own journey too.