You go, curl: Dominicans set things straight

The women are specialists in the subduing of spirited hair &

wizards of blow-dryers and curling irons, of brightly colored rollers and creamy Caribbean unguents, of bobby pins and potent frizz fighters. Kinks and coils are not welcome. Curls are to be quashed into submission, lassoed around restraining devices, baked under a bonnet and then brushed and brushed until they concede defeat.

At the Sashelvis Hair Salon Spa in suburban Silver Spring, Md., the only good curl is a curl that knows its place: prone.

There are those who like it like that, notwithstanding the fraught nature of race and hair. And because of this, women line up by the dozens, waiting to partake of this particular brand of communion: the Dominican blow-out, a multi-layered process that results, in the words of a '70s hair commercial, in bouncin' and behavin' hair. "Dominican" is a key component of this particular species of blow-out, a branding that sends its devotees scurrying to find a salon in Phoenix or Dallas or London, posting frantic missives on Web sites: "Bad hair day ... Desperately looking for a Dominican salon in downtown Toronto."

Which is why, at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, 18 women line up outside Sashelvis, Starbucks lattes in hand. Once inside, all is quiet, save for the hush of hair dryers, the soft murmur of Spanish, the trickle of running water. Then a brusque refrain, one that will be heard again throughout the 11-hour day, punctures the peace: "Next!" "We work all day long," said Ana Marmolejos, who co-owns Sashelvis with her sister, Carmen. "And at Easter time? Oh. My. God. We've got people lined up, waiting for dryers. Some days, you get those big bushes of hair, no chemicals. We feel like running away."

On this day, Marmolejos and her 15 stylists will coif the tresses of 116 women and girls. (On a really busy day, she said, they'll see as many as 160.) Ninety-eight percent of their clientele are African American, with a handful of Dominicanas, West Africans, Jamaicans, Central Americans and the stray white girl tossed into the mix.

The popularity of the Dominican salon embodies a perfect storm of racial aesthetics, cultural conditioning and a strong hand with a blow-dryer.

Burbling under the surface is a shared legacy of slavery and miscegenation, of ancestors who survived the Middle Passage, ending up in different ports of call all across the Americas. Dominicans, the descendants of Africans, Europeans and Taino Indians among others, are famous for knowing their way around highly textured hair, renowned for, as declares, "the best damn blow-outs in the country." Because of this, Ana and Carmen Marmolejos boast on their business cards, "YES, WE ARE DOMINICANS!"

"Whenever I come here, my hair looks so light and shiny," said Danielle Balfour, 29, a sweet-faced schoolteacher who comes in every month from Charlottesville, Va., about 100 miles southwest of Washington. "Other salons can't do it. So I stick to here. Everyone who comes here tries to figure out 'What's the mystery of what they do here?' "

Perhaps it's not that big of a mystery. In the Dominican Republic, where an estimated 90 percent of the population has at least some African ancestry, straight hair is revered as a symbol of beauty. Over the years, Dominicanas developed techniques to manage curly hair in a tropical climate, mastering the art of the roller set and concocting conditioners in the kitchen.

"It's the technique," observes New York-based beauty editor Tia Williams, who's chronicled her love for the Dominican blow-out in her blog, "Shake Your Beauty."

"It's all in the wrist, some kind of wrist action they have combined with the roller set. No matter how well you do roller sets at home, they do it better. The blow-out that you get is smoother and shinier than you can get at any other salons."

Unlike those pricey retreats where you're served cappuccino and white wine, Sashelvis is strictly no-frills: a handful of seats in front, a few pictures of hair models on the walls, a few religious portraits along with the American flag stuck in a glass vase.

It's relatively quick, about two hours start to finish. And it's cheap for D.C., with prices starting at $35. (It's cheaper in New York, epicenter of the Dominican American beauty parlor.)

It works something like this: You ask for a "wash 'n' set." The receptionist gives your hair the once-over. You pay $10 more if your hair is long, or naturally curly or kinky and untouched by chemical straighteners or relaxers.

Back in the shampoo room you get scrubbed down with products hailing from the D.R. and Europe and then slathered with ultrahydrating conditioners. Then it's under a dryer for 10 minutes while the conditioner does its work. After a quick rinse, the stylist painstakingly sets your soaking locks on big plastic rollers. Then it's back under the hairdryer for an ear-scorching 50 minutes. The stylist takes out the curlers and, armed with a blow-dryer and a brush, steamrolls out any remaining bumps and kinks from the hair. You're finished off with a curling iron, ensuring that any remaining hint of frizz is obliterated.

In Santo Domingo, there's a beauty shop on every corner. Office workers are expected to adhere to a strict dress code, Marmolejos said &

carefully coiffed hair, no ponytails or buns &

so women pop in every few days for a touch-up, trying to beat the heat and humidity.

"Every Dominican girl knows how to roller-set their hair," said Angelina "Gigi" Alcantara, 24, the salon's receptionist/bookkeeper. "It has to be real straight."

Some see this obsession with straightening hair as a desire to erase all traces of any connection to the Mother Land. In his upcoming novel, "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," Dominican American novelist Junot Diaz writes about how straight hair is a status symbol for Dominicans at home and abroad, something to indicate that you are more Taino or European than African, and therefore somehow better.

Observes Bernadette Sanchez, a Dominican American psychologist in Chicago: "Based on my own experience with my family and with other Dominicans, there is a complex about having black ancestry. There are many Dominicans to me who are clearly black but will not identify as black. A lot of shame in the Dominican culture about having black heritage." And historically, Sanchez said, that attitude translates into prejudice against black Americans.

Much like African Americans, the stylists here, all Dominicanas, are an assortment of colors and hair textures. "A lot of stylists don't want to deal with, let's say, African hair," Marmolejos said. "They're afraid of it. But we are black. We're all mixed, but how can I consider myself white?"

5 p.m., the last of the clients trickle in. Fewer clients emerge from the shampoo room. One by one the stylists with wet hair begin to take their places in chairs, towels draped around their necks. Now it's their turn.

Marmolejos finishes her last batch of customers. "I never have time to do my hair," she said, her own hair half-wet and blow-dried straight. Stealing a minute, she plops down into her own chair, as a stylist finishes her up.

7, the clients have gone and the workers get down to the final business of the day: Taking care of each other, wielding blow-dryers and scissors, curling irons and bobby pins, winding hair round rollers, then baking it until it does their bidding.

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