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

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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.

"African-American women have been going to salons every week for blow-outs for years," said Dowdy, who works at Phenix Salon Suite in Rosedale. "Other cultures are [now] saying it's a 'new' thing, but it's not a new thing. The same process is being used, but the name is changed so that it seems more sophisticated and new."

Teah Mosley, a budget analyst from Parkville, has been getting blow-outs for the past six years since "going natural," which means that she does not use chemical products to straighten or relax her hair.

"It might be something new to them, but it's definitely not new to me," said Mosley, who is black.

Yosayda Santiago, 33, owner of Latino American Beauty Salon By Jossy on Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, has been doing blow-outs in Baltimore for the past decade.

"When I first moved to Baltimore, there was no place here," said Santiago, who came to the area 10 years ago from Puerto Rico. "There was only one salon, and I was working in it. Then I opened my own."

Since then, nearly a dozen Dominican hair salons have opened in Baltimore. Santiago said she had not heard about the new crop of salons purporting to be the region's first to specialize in fast, inexpensive blow-outs. In addition to Haute Blow Dry Bar's two locations, there's also Hot Air Dry Bar, which opened last spring in Owings Mills.

"Maybe they don't know [about us]," Santiago said, adding that she doesn't view the dry bars as "new" to Baltimore. "It is not true."

Joy Singer and co-owner Kate Taylor opened Hot Air after being inspired by a similar-concept salon in Montecito, Calif.

"We went in and had wine. We walked out 45 minutes later with fabulous hair," said Singer. Later, "We were throwing around the idea of doing this in Baltimore. We couldn't let it rest. We had to do it. There weren't any in Maryland."

Singer, who is white, said she was unaware of Dominican salons when formulating the idea for hers.

"I haven't looked into their salons," she said. "I'm not an expert on Dominican salons."

In practice, Frederick said, there are differences between blow-dry bars and Dominican salons. She said that, according to her stylists, the extreme heat Dominican stylists use to loosen the tighter-curled strands of black women can damage finer hair.

Frederick also said the social aspect of blow-dry bars — birthday parties, champagne sipping and movie-watching — sets them apart from Dominican salons.

"Particularly what is being missed by the Dominican salon is that blow dry bars are very social. You can come in and hang with your friends. It is a big social element," she said. "I know that the Dominican [salons] are social, but it is in and out. We add a lot of fun to it."

At Santiago's salon, a flat-screen television plays a Spanish-language station. Stylists are laughing with customers. That's typical, according to the owner.

"My customers are my family," she said. "We play. We talk about everything. It's friendly."

But not everyone is familiar with the Dominican salons, and it is these clients who are frequenting the new blow-dry bars.

Margi Palmer, a white Monkton resident, started getting hair blow-outs in April. She said she has never heard about Dominican salons, which are often recommended by word of mouth.

"I've never seen one in Towson," said Palmer, who gets the process done every other week. "And I'm up to date. I do look at fashion stuff. I've never seen them advertise."

But Palmer said she would be willing to try a Dominican salon. "If it was convenient, and I could park, and if it was in a good location, I would go," she said. "I like to meet new people. And I bet they would do a fabulous job on my hair."

Pearce and her twin, Pearce Reardon, also said they had never heard of Dominican salons.

"I get caught up in my own bubble," said Pearce, who is white and Mexican. "I'll have to check them out."

The divide also works in the opposite direction. As with most Dominican salons, most of Santiago's customers are black.

"Once in a while, we do have a couple white customers," said Santiago, who said white women are more than welcome in her salon.

Since their hair is generally finer than black women, she said, it would take her less time to complete the styling and blow-drying.

Singer said that her salon differs from Dominican salons because hers caters to "all hair types." She estimates that 10 percent of her customers are black. Frederick says that one-fourth of her customers are black women.

Some black women said they were leery about going to a non-black hair stylist. Mosley, who has been going to Santiago's salon for the past six years, doubts she would give the blow-dry bars a chance.

"I wouldn't think that they would know how to work with my type of hair," she said. "I'm so used to going where I go. There would be no point for me to go. Maybe if they were charging a lot less I would go, but there is no way to know that they could do my hair."

Frederick hopes that black women will give her salon a shot.

"We are as inexpensive as the Dominicans," she said. Her customers "get a really great blow-out without the chemicals. … It is a business based on volume. And there are a lot of women in Maryland who want to have great-looking hair."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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