Everyone has bad hair days, but just consider the plight of the ballerina: her locks are teased, sprayed and shellacked into submission. For dancers split ends or an unruly cowlick are first-world problems. What about receding hairlines caused by scraping the hair, day in and day out, into a bun?
“Your teachers say that they don’t want frizzies — they want it tight,” said Wendy Whelan, a principal dancer at New York City Ballet. “So you pull your hair really tight. For years. You start getting thinner hair, and it’s actually really sick.”
Seriously long hair would seem to be as much a part of ballet as seriously long limbs, but as far as length is concerned, there are some nonconformists out there. Ashley Bouder of City Ballet and Simone Messmer of American Ballet Theater are two prominent dancers with short hair.
“Most dancers, from a young age, have long hair,” Ms. Messmer said. “And it’s great except it’s such a cookie-cutter mold. It makes you look like everybody else, and at some point you’ve got to decide who you are.” Her body stiffened. “I will never go back to long hair.”
Her light-brown hair skims the nape of her elegant neck, and her overgrown bangs are just long enough to tuck behind her ears. Every little bit helps. Along with Ms. Bouder she is putting off a proper haircut until the end of ballet season.
Going from long to short marks a drastic change in any woman’s life, but for ballet dancers it’s almost a political act. Long hair means femininity and a certain degree of submissiveness; cutting it all off flies in the face of tradition and of how a ballerina is perceived.
For ballets that require the hair to be worn down, like “Serenade,” Ms. Bouder wears a fall, which she said features three or four tiers of hair. “It attaches to a kind of comb,” she said. “Two sides come together and clip into your hair very tightly. It feels like little piranhas are eating your head when you first put it in, and then you forget that it’s there.”
In Russia short hair — or at least shorter hair — is becoming more common. Along with Uliana Lopatkina of the Mariinsky Ballet, there is Natalia Osipova, who cut her hair off in 2007, inspired by Audrey Tautou’s gamine hairstyle in the French film “Amélie.” A principal with the Bolshoi as well as a guest artist with Ballet Theater, Ms. Osipova spoke through a translator at the Metropolitan Opera House. Her eyes sparkled: “In one moment, I said, ‘I’m cutting my hair. That’s it.’ ”
Reaction at the Bolshoi Theater was a fiery mix of shock and dismay. (She said that several dancers there have since followed her lead.)
Ms. Osipova’s voice broke into laughter as she recalled her coach’s reaction. “She said: ‘Disaster! You look like a boy! What are we going to do?’ The hairdresser in the company was looking at me and saying, ‘Oh my God, how can I handle this?’ ”
Her mother doesn’t approve either. But Ms. Osipova is the sort of ballerina who needs a little rebellion in her life. “I’m probably the person,” she said with a smile, “who’s always trying to break the rules.”
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.