'Scalped' dance theatre at Brighton Festival
In our third Brighton Festival 2019 review, Kings Brighton students Yoshi, Tekena and Gabriela headed to the seafront to report on Scalped, an outdoor dance theatre performance, on the subject of 'black women's hair in professional spaces and western society'. Words by Yoshi Cristina Ortiz Leal and Tekena Mac-Yoroki; photos by Gabriela Braga.
There is a face lying on the beach, a head formed out of wires and metal. It stands in between four metal cubicles set upon wheels so that they can be easily moved when needed. This face is of red lips and eyes so bright they make you wonder how it was constructed. Upon it lay wigs, every single one of them beautiful — but their presence is strange, as few knew their ultimate purpose.
The performance begins with the women all in single file, their bodies covered in black dresses, underneath which they are wearing outfits of different colours and styles. Their movements are short and almost as if out of breath, each of their bodies caught in what seems to be a struggle. In the background you hear women, voices merged in with the music and yet clear enough to hear about an issue, a topic important to black women around the world.
At one point in the performance the performers divide into two groups. One side is caught in a struggle, arms rattling around their bodies as if attempting to scratch an itch their fingers just don't seem to reach. The other side speaks, their movements gentle and sweet, and their mouths proclaiming that they are 'beautiful'. As the song moves on, the performers switch sides, stop itching and instead became beautiful, elegant, sleek. Then they are all struck by the itch, unable to escape it, and begin to move as if they are warriors, trapped in a battle which requires most of their energy, a battle they seem to be losing.
They all claim they must work and walk into the cubicles, placing upon their heads wigs, cut into bobs of two different colours: black and blue. They move the cubicles with them, their purpose that of a dressing room in which they speak to the co-workers and bosses, people that exist only in their mind as no-one but they can see them. They dance and rush around said cubicles, pushing them along the floor as they tell each other that they must hurry up. For a moment they are fine, the struggle is gone and they find themselves brightly smiling.
It is when work is done and the wigs are off that they find themselves back into this struggle. At one point the voices come back, claiming that they must be proud and so they are. The movements soon become powerful and strong. Towards the end they move towards the head, climbing onto it and taking different positions along it, with one far from it and on the floor. They place wigs on their heads and proceed to stand tall. Their chins up high and their movements sweet and gentle. And they are beautiful, decorated in gold and set against music which has them be proud of who they are.
'Scalped' debuted during the Brighton Festival and is a dance theatre exploring fashion and conformity. It speaks through movement, sounds, and the costumes of the performers as well as the hair, but what exactly does it hope to say?
To fully understand the gravity and importance of this dance and the movement it represents, let's go back to where it all began — Africa. In the 15th century, hair was an identifier. It was a way to distinguish a person's age, religion, rank, marital status (way before men started putting a ring on it!) and even family groups.
Braids played a big role in this. Intricate braiding styles often took (and still takes) hours or even days to complete. It was a time of bonding and community between the women. During the slave trade however, everything changed. As Africans were taken from their homes, their heads were often shaved for sanitary reasons. Africans not only lost their hair, but also a part of their identity.
In a bid to stay connected to their culture, and still have a part of home, some African women began to braid their hair whilst in captivity. It also helped them to keep their hair neat and tidy while working on plantations.
As slavery ended, black women in America opted to straighten their naturally curly hair, conforming to the European standard of beauty. Straight hair was deemed 'good hair' and was perceived as a doorway to job opportunities. Black women with straight hair were considered better adjusted or even more accepted by their white counterparts.
By the 1960s, race relations spiked and black activists and artists alike used their hair as a form of expression during the Black Hair Movement. In the workplace however, braids were frowned upon — and many women lost their jobs over this hairstyle. It was perceived as 'ghetto' or 'unpretty' by their white counterparts. Employers argued that this style did not fit into the 'corporate image'. They were afraid of the statement that braids made. They didn't understand them, so they banned them.
This occurrence, a century after the abolition of slavery, can be deemed as a subtler form of oppression, as the option of embracing the identity tied in with African hair was once again stripped away. Despite this, natural hair (a term used to describe hair that is unaltered from the way it grows from the scalp) was making a comeback, and braids were at the forefront of this movement. Hair was no longer associated as a source of shame, but a symbol of pride and celebration.