Split between Dominican salons, blow-dry bars speaks to racial divide, observers say

Businesses focused on quick styling have been popular for years in the black community

January 01, 2014|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

Michelle Pearce and her twin sister, Sandie Pearce Reardon, wanted to try something new when they walked into Haute Blow Dry Bar in Harbor East. They were so pleased with the results — long chestnut locks — that they posted photos that afternoon of their new hairdos to Facebook.

"We love it," Pearce, who lives in Federal Hill, said about the new salon. "It took [the stylist] about 20 minutes."

So-called "blow-dry bars" have been popping up in Baltimore and around the country. For about $50, clients can walk in and get a quick wash and styling. They're being marketed and hailed as a new concept. The appeal of a hair salon that focuses on fast service at low prices is self-evident. What's less evident, observers say, is that this concept has been put into practice for more than a decade by Dominican hair salons that cater to black women.

The fact that such salons can be marketed as a new idea — and that their owners view them that way — speaks to the racial divides that persist in U.S. society, such observers say. Some critics go so far as to accuse the blow-dry bar owners of cultural misappropriation.

"Dominican hair salons have been a staple in less affluent communities — frequented by African-American and Hispanics," said Azizi Figueroa, vice president at Nene's Secret, a New York-based hair care company. "Not a lot of Caucasians are frequenting those communities. That's why there hasn't been a crossover appeal."

Case in point: When Abigail Frederick moved to Baltimore three years ago from San Francisco, she said she noticed the city lacked blow-dry bars.

"I was pretty surprised that it wasn't here yet," said Frederick, a white woman who opened the Haute Blow Dry Bar this past summer in Towson and another one more recently in Harbor East. "We think Baltimore is such a great city. But it was missing some of the growth."

Blow-dry bars, also known as "blow-out salons," started cropping up in New York and Los Angeles in the past decade and began surfacing last year around Baltimore.

Dominican hair salons started popping up in areas such as New York about 25 years ago, according to Figueroa, who is black and Puerto Rican.

Because of a shared heritage, African-Americans found a hair ally among some Dominicans who specialize in naturally straightening coarse or curly hair. Black women typically go to Dominican salons for the hot-air blow-outs that leave their hair stick-straight and cost about $30 to $50. The stylists are able to soften and elongate thicker, tightly curled hair with brushes and extreme-heat dryers.

Dominican salons have succeeded because of their prices and quality work, according to Figueroa.

"They are a best-kept secret," she said. "They are loved and favored by the African-American community. You are in and out."

The low price is key — as is the high potential for revenue. The $48.1 billion hair and nail industry has grown only 2 percent annually since 2008, according to an IBISWorld industry report. Seen as a new service to offset the sluggish pace, blow-dry bars over the past five years "have enjoyed significant success as an affordable indulgence," according to the report. Women who have cut back on the frequency of cuts and colorings may still stop in weekly or just before big events, such as job interviews, parties or dates.

Yet the growth opportunity that blow-dry bars have seized upon also represents a form of cultural misappropriation, according to Lori L. Tharps, an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University and co-author of the book "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America."

Tharps, who is black, likens the phenomenon to Bo Derek's cornrows of the late '70s or Miley Cyrus' "twerking" at last year's MTV Video Music Awards. She sees parallels to such phenomena as white chefs adopting "soul food" and renaming it "Southern" cooking, or the name "Harlem Shake" being applied to an Internet meme that has scant relationship to the term's hip-hop roots.

"It wasn't like this wasn't available to white people," she said in reference to the Dominican salons. "There is nothing to suggest that they were race-specific — because Dominicans are a mixed race of people. To say that the blow-dry bars of today, which are primarily European-centered, consider this a new thing is just incorrect. Just because you didn't know it existed doesn't make it new."

The ethnic divide in hair care has never been more apparent than with the emergence of the blow-dry salon trend — especially in Baltimore, where blacks make up nearly 65 percent of the population.

Reginald Thomas Dowdy, a black hairstylist with 15 years of experience, was taken aback when he heard about Baltimore's latest hair innovation.

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