Hair: A Short History

Renée K. Nicholson

When forced to quit dancing, you did the only thing you could: you cut your hair. A bold act, the length of long, silky brown became a short, stark bob. A flapper for the 1990s. An act of rebellion against the feature that so tied you to the look of a ballet dancer. The shortened hair made you look even younger than you were, but you didn’t care. You didn’t look like someone who belonged in a dance studio, what you needed to move on. Your body would take a longer time to change, but let’s not get ahead.

The ballerina Darci Kistler had long blonde hair, commented on so often by others that it became iconographic. One of your early idols, Darci Kistler became your standard of beauty. When, at a summer intensive, a teacher remarked that your hair reminded her of a brunette version of Kistler, you nearly died of delight. So when the locks fell, perhaps you should have cried. But you didn’t. That time was over, passed. Cutting allowed you to move along.

The short hair, much to your hairdresser’s surprise, pleased you. You didn’t remember your old self very much with the cropped look, but a different young woman who could be anything: a teacher, a businesswoman, a personal trainer, a scientist, a therapist, a programmer, a fashion designer. You wanted to be a writer. Newly minted with the short locks and “I can do anything” attitude, you didn’t write about dance. At first, you wrote about fishing: with your family in surf off the Atlantic, with two old guys at the reservoir. You owned a pink rod the color of a Daisy razor, the kind you shaved your legs with. You didn’t know much at all about fishing, but you went out with the two old guys and a Yorkie named Odie. Mostly, they told you stories. One owned the bait shop on the reservoir, which kept losing letters, so it was the “IT SHOP.”

Still, inside you, there was the training of a ballet dancer. To try to forget, you focused on college courses, in which you did very well.


The disease had its own mind and pace, and for a while, that pace was aggressive. Later there would be more effective ways to control it. But for years you felt the effects of it every day, wondered if there would be a day that your body—filled out since quitting dance but still slender—wouldn’t feel sluggish, filled with fluid. You never said hurt, but it did. If you didn’t say it, it might cease to be. You hated the sluggishness most, tried to ignore it. The doctor told you fatigue was normal, but you tried coffee and Diet Coke, tried changing your diet. Exercises, too, but it was tougher than you thought, and when your joints swelled enough, nearly impossible to work out.

You bought a membership to a facility with a warm water pool and took classes for people with joint issues. You were the youngest in class by about forty years. A former marine befriended you. He had grandchildren not much younger than you. He was completely bald. Your bob had grown to your shoulders, but not further. In your warm water exercise classes, you clipped it up on your head, not in a bun, of course, but so that it wouldn’t get saturated with chlorine.

The former marine liked working out with you because he thought you were serious. You were. Using a noodle wrapped around your torso for buoyancy, you scissored your legs, or pedaled an imaginary bike. There were many ladies in the class. “They talk too much, aren’t here to work out,” the former marine grumbled. The pool area was filled with the cluck and clatter of chatting and the splashing of the exercises.

The warm water workouts were not strenuous, but you felt better. You had more energy for work. You worked in marketing, had a knack for writing press releases that resulted in articles, and advertising copy that got attention. Not bad work, but you craved something more creative. You liked being able to pay your bills and for your warm water workouts. You went to the workouts five days a week after work, sometimes on Saturday mornings.

Some Saturdays, however, you slept in. You never felt like you got enough rest, but you tried to keep up appearances.


When did you start to dream about dancing?You went to writers’ workshops for long weekends. You called these vacations. Occasionally you wrote about dancers, and the faculty at these workshops encouraged you to write more. At night, head on pillow, you dreamed in white lines of tutus in Giselle and La Bayadere. The white of Balanchine’s Symphony in C. You kept up with writers of dance criticism, read about Darci Kistler in her husband’s version of Swan Lake. More white.

The white in your world flashed hot in your joints, but you didn’t complain. You tried not to think about it. You got shots, procedures. You kept up with the warm water workouts. Your right knee was always swollen. Joints usually swell systemically, both sides, but your right knee was always worse than your left.

When you danced, your strongest side had always been left.

You attempted to hide the swelling by covering your legs. No shorts. Skirts to mid-calf were your favorite. You wore pants often, too. Your legs lightened several shades paler than the rest of your skin, you continued to hide beneath clothes. Legs never in the sun. Your limp became a harder aspect to disguise, your gait a hobble. You kept a sunny disposition, made jokes about being a gimp.

Stairs became arch enemy number one. Climbing up or down turned out to be difficult, slow. You hid nothing, but didn’t talk about it. Really, what was there to say?


When you started writing in earnest about dancing, you grew out your hair. When others read your work, they looked at you, assessed what they saw. “You still have the look of a dancer,” they told you.

You know it was the hair--length a hallmark for ballerinas. Your body, not large, morphed into a softer, doughier version, no longer sleek and angular. You didn’tthink you looked like a dancer at all, and it made you unhappy. You no longer had the duck walk, the way a dancer couldn’t help but hold her turnout when she simply walked. You didn’t feel toned, muscles gone slack. You tried sitting up straight in your chair, trying to preserve your posture.

You still had a long neck, of course. That didn’t change over the years. Maybe that gave you the look that others found dancer-like. Maybe they were looking for whatever signs they could find.

Your legs felt lumpy and useless, your arms a thin spindle of nothing. Knuckles swollen too.

When you wrote about dance, a part of you was freed. You remembered the bourrées from Raymonda’s third act variation, the happy petit allegro of Peasant Pas from Giselle. Trying to capture it on paper frustrated you in a good way. When you tried to explain this to others, they looked at you like you had a third eye, or a giant pimple on the tip of your nose.

You wrote leaps, little bits of flying. Closed your eyes, remembered the feeling. You could hear the instructions from your teacher. “You should be able to clap your hands under your legs when you leap.” Jumping, ironically, had been your specialty, a tiny firecracker of a girl.

You returned to the writers’ workshop, got more encouragement. A somewhat famous writer liked your material. “The bad news is that this is probably a novel,” he said over drinks with the rest of your workshop group.

You didn’t tell him that the only way to deal with your grief was to write the world you used to know. Instead, you let yourself be happy that something worked. Alone, you considered this question: why fiction? The facts of your life still hurt. The knee was still swollen tight, walking slow, labored, often with a cane. On the page, you created characters to do Don Quixote leaps. Ink-on-paper legs were strong, extended, lean. Your narration curled around your characters, dancers, like soutenu turns. In your actual life, your body tried to curl around your failing legs.


The only things to do: fight against the disease, enroll in a writing program. You did both, hobbling around a mountainous campus with your cane keeping you upright. You taught and attended classes, what writing grad students do. Most of the time, you felt happy, especially writing, focusing on writing, those things that released you from your physical body. Your hair reached down your back; your writing focused on the lives of dancers. Physically, your body continued degenerating, but your mind took flight the way your legs used to. Most days, this was enough to sustain you.

For the first time, you wrote about your own experience as a dancer. It exhausted you. It pleased you. It got published, to your shock and delight. Mostly, you retreated into characters, let them dance the way you longed to.

The Director of Dance at the university where you studied writing read your published piece. Reading the essay, it was clear you’dhad training. A modern dancer by trade, she asked you to coach a student with a ballet background, to teach her a classical variation. You had not been in a studio in over a decade, nearly two. You agreed anyway.

The smell of the studio was familiar—the sweat of work hung heavy, despite opened windows, despite cleaning. Dance studios smelled of human effort.


It’s not like you to complain about pain. Suck it up, you told yourself. As a dancer, you ached too, different than this ache. That was the ache of exertion. When it got bad enough, hurt too much to walk, you called your rheumatologist. X-rays showed you both the culprit: your right knee no longer had any cartilage. Imagined clack of bones knitting together.

“I don’t know how you are even getting around,” your rheumatologist said. It didn’t make you feel like less of a wimp.

The decision: years of trying to get by with a walker, or knee replacement. You booked the first available surgery date. No hesitation. You decided it was best to get on with what you had to do.

After surgery, your wound had to heal before you could shower. You asked your mother to wash your hair in the sink. Clean hair became your guilty pleasure. You worked out the tangles with a comb; your conditioner made your hair smell like kiwi fruit.


A week after surgery, you returned to the dance studio. Perched on a stool, you gave ballet class. You relied solely on your voice, your ability to articulate the combinations and corrections. After every few exercises at the barre, you asked the dancers to rotate so you could see and instruct them all. It was as if your class was a conveyor belt of ballerinas. They willingly complied. Your friends and family thought you were nuts to return so soon, but it felt right to get to work. More and more you had been asked to teach dance, and to your surprise, you found that you were good at it.


Once into it, you ended up loving physical therapy. Like the early days of your dance training, you gained a sense of accomplishment. You learned to walk properly again, no limp. Your orthopedic surgeon was pleased with the results of your surgery. He told you that under anesthetic, the muscles in your right leg tried to hitch up to protect your joint, your body’s reaction for managing the pain of your knee. He had never seen that in all his years in surgery, because under anesthesia, the muscles usually relaxed. On hearing this you smiled in your crooked, peculiar way. Your leg muscles had a dancer’s memory.

Your physical therapist had you do basic exercises on a Pilates reformer. You loved this part of therapy because as a dancer, you also did Pilates. Plié was as natural as breath. Your physical therapist was thrilled with the results, more flexion. Not perfect, but better.

Could you ever dance again?This was the question always on your mind. You didn’t ask. You knew better than to think you’d ever dance like you once did, but you dared to hope all the same.


Sometimes you flirt with cutting your hair, but you don’t. You’re in the studio several days a week now. You walk well; you can demonstrate simple things. You feel your arms and upper body, what used to be your expressive port de bras. You develop muscles in your back again.

You still swell inside your body, but your medicine is helping more. You still get tired, fatigued, but find inner velocity that pushes you forward. You remember what your physical therapist told you. “The people who tend to have it the worst complain the least,” she said. “Don’t ever let this get the better of you.”

Sometimes you still are told you look like a dancer. No one has ever told you that you look like a writer. Most times, people comment on your transformation: no walker, no cane, no limp. Darci Kistler, your former idol, retires from dancing. You start coaching private students, and they start going to summer intensives. Most days, you write and experience dance. You are always busy with both. You take weekly shots to keep going. Most of the time, you don’t mind. There’s not a lot of time for what could have been.

Sometimes you wear your hair twisted in a high bun, other times you braid a long length of pony tail into a thick rope. Sometimes you leave it long and wild. You keep brushes in your car and bag. You condition it to keep it healthy and shiny. Trim the dead ends. At night, you comb your long brown hair, now with stands of gray and sometimes pure white.