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Teasing Pleases: Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar used hair--her own and others'--as inspiration for the dance pieces in 'Hair Stories.'

Good Hair, Bad Hair

Urban Bush Women dance around the tangled issue of women's hair

By Julia Chiapella

WE SHAPE IT, streak it, tease it, bleach it. We cut it for a new look. We primp, brood and agonize because hair, for better or worse, is subject to intense scrutiny. Everyone wants great hair.

With this kind of attention, it's little wonder that Urban Bush Women's artistic director, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, created the dance performance Hair Stories, which UCSC Arts & Lectures presents on Saturday.

"My hair has been a source of curiosity and challenge throughout my life," Zollar says, "from an Afro in the '60s to having locks to cutting it off and being bald." With all the fascination directed not only toward her own hair but the hair of other members of her dance company, Zollar began developing a piece on the travails of tresses in 1993.

Founded in 1984 by Zollar, the Urban Bush Women are known for their sassy, furious, athletic overtures that mine universal truths. Based in Brooklyn, the troupe brings its latest work into circulation following a debut performance last August at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.

The evening-length Hair Stories is set to music by James Brown, George Clinton and the Funkedelics, positing on the nature of funk and its relationship to hair, specifically African American women's hair.

But our immense cross-cultural preoccupation with hair allows Hair Stories to transcend race. According to Zollar, who conducts Meet-the-Artist discussions after each performance, a white woman told her how much she enjoyed Hair Stories.

"She was surprised at how much it had related to her even though it was about African American women," Zollar says. "Each culture has issues for women around hair like whether it's being blonde or not being blonde or whatever the current fashion is. It's all about whether you can meet societal expectations and what happens if you don't."

Within this context, Hair Stories features scenarios like a bald woman who steps into an elevator and becomes the focus of intense scrutiny. There's another bit modeled on the differences between Zollar's own hair and that of her sister's. As a child, Zollar's thick, unruly locks got the spotlight, while her sister's short, thin hair was derided. The result, says Zollar, is that the perception of having "inferior" hair has a devastating effect. And then there's the teasing.

"It's about teasing and the long-term effects of that," Zollar explains. "It's one of the more dramatic sections."

From here it's not hard to deconstruct Zollar's premise into a treatise on racism. Dr. Professor, the teacher of a course called Naphology 101, lectures on "the construct of whiteness" and "reappropriating the tools of the oppressor." But Zollar takes potshots at both sides, willing to give equal play to the often ridiculous quest for beauty.

Moving easily from community-based art projects to performance works, Zollar believes it's the cross-fertilization between the two that makes Urban Bush Women unique. Referring to the tired notion that "those who can't do, teach," she says Urban Bush Women helped blow apart the myth that a company is somehow diminished if it does community work.

But for now, the all-women dance troupe will reflect on the glories and the treacheries of hair. Which begs the question, what's the current state of Zollar's hair?

"It depends on the day," she says with a laugh. "It can be a lot of different ways."

Hair Stories is performed Saturday (Jan. 26) at 8pm at the Theater Arts Mainstage at UCSC. Tickets are $14/$20/$25; call 831.459.2159 or www.events.ucsc.edu/artslecs.

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From the January 23-30, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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