I had an acting teacher in college once tell me that the voice is one of the most personal and most intimate qualities of a human being. The timbre of it, the cadence of speech, its pitch are all unique to us and create an indelible first impression. I've come to think of hair in much the same way. A person's weight can fluctuate wildly but our hair has a quality, a characteristic that marks who we are from the beginning: it's too thick, it's too thin, it has too much curl or not enough volume. We cut it, we dye it, we straighten it, we heat it into submission and subject it to all kinds of treatments and abuse, but ultimately it will always return to its nature. We love it, we hate it... and we're stuck with it.
Dance, particularly styles such as ballet, and certain folkloric dances such as flamenco, have become associated with a kind of iconography: hair tightly slicked back and gathered into a generous, neat bun sitting on the nape of the neck. In the case of flamenco it is usually decorated by small combs and a single rose pinned to the top of the head; a flower seemingly sprouting from the impossibly straight part, conferring a look that is once austere and abidingly feminine.
The ritual involved in preparing the hair for a performance is a time-honored hell of an affair involving at least two mirrors, hair teasing, dozens of pins, spray bottle, gel, hair spray, and various decorative accents. That along with the make up and costumes is part of the transition a dancer makes from 'layperson' to 'stage persona.' It centers you.
In the case of flamenco, I've rarely been to a performance in Spain, or elsewhere, where this look, with the occasional exception of untamed hair falling loose around the shoulders, is not adhered to with religious fervor. There is an argument to be made that that which does not look like flamenco is not flamenco.
So where did that leave me?
Several years ago, my grey hair finally became a problem: the dyeing maintenance just took up too much of my time and energy; so I decided to not see the grey as a problem anymore and I shaved my head.... just the the sides actually, and gave myself a mohawk. And I LOVED it. I felt free and empowered and sexy in this new look.
And then the doubting began...
My biggest issue was not that somehow I didn't like me in that look anymore. My biggest problem lay in a simple question: what will people think?
So let me start by defining "people." First and foremost, my teachers; my students; fellow artists, and potential clients (i.e. those who hire you for gigs, presentations, shows, etc). Here are some of the things I imagined any one of them thinking, wondering, or god forbid actually saying out loud: "But what do you with your hair when you perform?""It's not feminine," "That's not what a flamenco dancer is supposed to look like,""It's disrespectful to the art form,""It doesn't go with the dress,""Who does she think she is?!"
The "what do you do with your hair when you perform" was asked of me several times and I actually found myself trying to come up with an answer that would somehow satisfy them. And then I started wondering why I was feeling apologetic about my hair. Where does that impulse come from? Why can't I just say: "I don't know, I suppose not much" without this nagging sensation that the answer isn't really good enough? And then the grinding anxiety that follows...
I moved around a lot when I was young. I changed school many times due to my father's job. I think that because I never developed roots, I become an accomplished mimic to try and seem more of the place and of the people. To try to seem authentic. I learned different languages. I was a quick study. I wanted to fit in, get by unnoticed so that I wouldn't be made fun of, or so kids wouldn't be able to tell how uncomfortable, scared and awkward I actually felt most of the time. Years later, all those skills I had learned as a child to cope with insecurity and uncertainty were deeply ingrained. So much so that I chose performance and the theater as my profession. On stage, I was in control, full of self-confidence, resilience, strength, emotional honesty...all those things that had eluded me in real life.
Fast forward a couple decades. I fall in love with flamenco, I spend years traveling, studying, taking every class, workshop under the sun. Learning how to sing just to improve my dancing. I was diligent. I was focused. What I learned, I learned well. I had wonderful teachers and mentors that invested time in me and I was desperate to prove to them that I was the real deal. I could do it right, and now that I was teaching I had an obligation to do it 'right.' I had to be "authentic." And there it was, that word again.
I'm an Italian immigrant teaching a Spanish art form in Chicago, an art that is not my own. Am I doing what I learned to do as an actor: borrowing someone else's story and character because I don't know my own?
My friends are doctors, lawyers, professionals with framed diplomas hung on the wall. Where can I apply for a certificate of authentication as a flamenco professional? I've put in my 10,000 hours but my name writ large on the studio door says "Mangiameli," not "Heredia" or "Amaya."
For years none of these questions occurred to me because they were deeply disguised by choreographies, and the clothing and the accessories. I was so good and so practiced at being a good mimic, that I neglected to process the most important thing about this art form: who am I in this?
When you take away the prepared steps, when you strip yourself of the accessories, when you stop playing the role of 'flamenco dancer,' what exactly are you left with? Can you finally then claim some small ownership of an art that for better or for worse has occupied so much of your time and heart and mind? A music that rattles you and haunts you and resonates with you so deeply that it makes you feel like it knows you better than you know yourself?
It's a disconcerting, unsettling path to take and I imagine a very long one too. It's hard to look at oneself, especially when you're in a position where you're teaching and expected to have answers.
But I don't like pretending much anymore. It leaves me feeling disconnected. From myself and from others. I prefer to try and get to the bottom of things even if it exposes flaws and vulnerabilities.
Can I look the way I do and carry my name and claim to carry the tradition of flamenco forward? Can I let my works and my studio, and the lives of a few students that I've touched, speak for themselves?
I don't know. But I know this much. It's isn't about the hair anymore. And it isn't about the name. And maybe that's the beginning of something authentic.