Of Curls and Cultures

Tiffany Batista, 12, who is from the Dominican Republic, has her hair set to be straightened on large plastic rollers at the Dominican-owned salon Sashelvis in Silver Spring.
Tiffany Batista, 12, who is from the Dominican Republic, has her hair set to be straightened on large plastic rollers at the Dominican-owned salon Sashelvis in Silver Spring. (Photos By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 14, 2007

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 downtown Silver Spring, 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 queue up by the dozens at the salon, 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 on Wayne Avenue 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," says 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 says, they'll see as many as 160.) The overwhelming majority of those women will be African American -- 98 percent of their clientele -- 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 -- even in Washington, which has only a microscopic population hailing from the Dominican Republic -- embodies a perfect storm of racial aesthetics, cultural conditioning and a strong hand with a blow-dryer. (In downtown Silver Spring, there are six Dominican hair salons, including one owned by another of Marmolejos's sisters and one that she rents out to another hairstylist. (There are others scattered around the region.) 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, Taino Indians and a few other strains thrown in for good measure, are famous for knowing their way around highly textured hair, renowned for, as Latina.com 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!"

That's what folks come for.

"Whenever I come here, my hair looks so light and shiny," says Danielle Balfour, 29, a sweet-faced elementary school teacher from Charlottesville, as she stands in line with sopping-wet hair, waiting to have it set on rollers. Every month, she says, she makes her pilgrimage to Sashelvis.

"I can't do [what they do]," Balfour says. "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 it is estimated that 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."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company