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Hair Extensions: When Your Own Hair Isn’t Enough

Let’s talk about hair extensions.

Unlike some contemporary or modern dance forms, belly dance places an inordinate amount of emphasis on appearance, presentation, and grooming. Professional belly dancers know that we shouldn’t go on stage with our “office hair” or our “rehearsal hair.” If you’re new to this performance thing, then you should start thinking about what’s happening on your head in addition to what’s happening in your hips.

The archetypal belly dancer has beautiful, thick, curly hair. My hair? Fine, limp, and oily. It’s the total opposite of belly dancer hair. It doesn’t even hold a curl. AND in the last five or so years, it’s started thinning. I am definitely follicle-challenged.

It’s taken me a long time to accept my anemic tresses, but knowing I can boost my look with false ones has helped me make peace with it all. In fact, many dancers supplement their own locks with store-bought ones. Of course some dancers have blazed their own paths with short hair or slicked-back hair. Rosa Noreen rocks her pixie cut, and in Suhaila Salimpour’s Enta Omri, we wear our hair slicked back into donut buns.

But, in general, belly dance calls for big hair.

While some people wear extensions and wigs in their daily life, dancing in said hair poses additional challenges. Our hair has to stay on our head, regardless of how many hair flips or spins we do. I’ve experimented with lots of different kinds of hair extensions, particularly short-term ones. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Photo by The Dancer’s Eye

Types of Temporary Extensions and Falls

OK, so technically every kind of extension is temporary. Eventually they’ll fall out or grow out. I’m going to start with the more temporary varieties, and then add my experiences with Perfectress semi-permanent extensions, which I recently had installed by a professional this spring before the Bal Anat 50th Anniversary tour.

First, terminology: When shopping for extensions, you’ll see terms like “Yaki,” “Remy,” “virgin,” “cuticle” and more. Yaki hair refers to fibers, synthetic and natural, that mimic the texture of hair of people of Afro-Caribbean descent. It’s usually a little thicker and coarser than non-Yaki. Yaki hair can be synthetic or natural, and comes in various styles, from straight and sleek to curly and kinky.

Remy hair means that the hair is natural, from a single donor, and all the fibers are the same direction. Remy hair can be processed or unprocessed. Unprocessed is usually referred to as “virgin.” This means that the cuticle is still intact and hasn’t been dyed or straightened. The cuticle is the outer layer of the hair that helps protect it from damage.

If you’re in the market to buy real human hair, make sure you get the good stuff: Remy, virgin, cuticle intact. Your natural hair might resemble the Yaki texture, so shop around to be sure to get a good match. Or, if it’s within your financial means, consult a professional stylist.

Temporary Extensions

Ponytail Falls

These are perhaps the easiest of all the fake hair adventures. I’m sure you’ve seen some variation of the ponytail fall. Back in the mid 2000s, I could even find them at mall kiosks. I prefer the ones with just a drawstring on the inside and one or two small combs, not the ones with a banana/jaw clip under the hair.

They are often made of synthetic fibers, although some are made with real human hair. Synthetics are almost always less expensive than the real thing.

To wear, pull your hair back in a high ponytail, and insert the combs around your own hair. Then pull the drawstring tight so the combs attach into your ponytail. Tuck the drawstring under (pinning it if necessary), and voila! A beautiful full ponytail that’s ready for the stage. I also like to bobby pin around the base of the fall for extra security, just in case.

Abigail Keyes in Enta Omri
Even this bun isn’t my real hair.

Clip-in Loose Extensions

These were my preferred hair supplements for quite a long time. These come in two basic varieties: one that’s like a wig cap that you clip at the back of your head, with your natural hair covering the fall; the other is separate wefts of hair that you also clip in at the back of your head. Both attach with wig clips, which are very secure, with a little rubber bit that helps stick to your hair.

I use the separate wefts, and after several years of practice, I can securely install them in under 10 minutes. However, I do have to wash, dry, and style my natural hair beforehand. Right after washing and before blow-drying, I use Bumble & Bumble’s Styling Lotion because it adds body and is a bit sticky, which helps keep the clips from sliding out. On performance nights when I know I’ll be on stage for a long time (read: sweating), I also love Aveda’s Pure Abundance Hair Potion, which absorbs a bit of the sweat and oil and helps add volume. I also lightly hairspray the area at the roots before clipping in the falls, which also adds a little extra security.

Abigail Keyes writes about hair extensions for dancers
Not my real hair, and I ain’t ashamed. These are clip-ins. Photo by The Dancer’s Eye.

Half or Three-Quarter Wigs

These are great because you don’t have the weight of a full head wig or the additional sweat factor. I’ve worn these a few times, particularly when I’m playing a Ghawazee with Bal Anat. If you’re not wearing a headband, you’ll have to brush your own hair over the top, blending it in with the half wig. Some dancers wear a headband instead, eliminating the need to have a perfect color and/or texture match.

Full Wigs

The great thing about wigs is that you don’t have to match your own hair at all. You can change your style quickly with no commitment. I admit that I have little experience with wigs, as I’m worried they’re going to fly right off of my head. Some dancers, however, swear by them.

If you’re investing in a full head of hair that isn’t grown out of your own scalp, I’d recommend looking at some made out of real human hair. The synthetic ones often have a strange, artificial-looking shine, which is a dead giveaway that it’s not your natural hair. Real human hair is more expensive in general, but worth the extra money. It will last longer, too, especially if you take care of it well. But if you’re just trying out the wig thing, you might want to go the cheaper route just for fun.

Princess Farhana suggested to me that when buying a full wig, go to the shop in full makeup. A hair piece is going to look much different against a fully made up face than it will against your daily look.

Once you’ve found one you like, you can take it to your hair stylist to trim and shape it to best match your facial structure and desired look.

More Hair Permanent Options

Tape-in extensions

These work on the same principle as the clip-ins, but have a length of tape that sticks to your own hair. If you have oily hair, like I do, these might not last that long. And, as this article from Allure points out, they take a long time and a professional to install.

They’re meant to be worn for longer amounts of time than the clip-ins, but your mileage may vary. You might also want to avoid them if your hair is very fine, because removing the tape might also remove some of your own delicate hair. They’re also more likely to slip out if you have oily hair.

Beaded Wefts and Links

My current favorite! This spring I took the plunge. I searched on Yelp for a stylist in my area who specializes in semi-permanent extensions for people with fine and thin hair. I found Sophia at Le Salon in Berkeley, California, who is a miracle worker.

I currently have PerfecTress brand extensions, which match my natural hair so well that most people I see are like, “Wow! Your hair got so long!” Yes. Yes it did. Because I bought it.

Maybe she’s born with it? Or maybe she bought it. No shame!

I’ve only had one mishap with one of the links falling out, and after having the hair for nearly 9 months, it’s still in good shape. Only a few split ends, and it looks relatively healthy.

The wonderful thing about these is that I can wash and dry my hair as I normally would, and it looks very natural. It’s also the most comfortable extension I’ve worn. It was only uncomfortable the day or two after it was installed, because my scalp wasn’t yet used to the extra weight.

Where Should You Buy Your Hair?

Clip-in bangs and a long poofy ponytail fall helped me play Jamila Salimpour at Reverence. Photo by Angelica Wu.

You’ll want to visit a proper wig shop to find the best extensions, rather than just buying online. Not only will you have to match your hair’s color, but you’ll also have to match the texture. You don’t want super thick extensions if you have baby fine natural hair. It will just look weird.

If you have lighter-colored hair, it’s probably going to be more difficult to find a true match. But if you ask, the shop keepers will be more than happy to help you find the right extensions for you. While you’re there, you can probably stock up on some cheap fake eyelashes too!

If buying a full set of human hair extensions with the cuticle still intact, be prepared to spend at least $100 for a set. I paid a pretty penny for my current extensions, but they’re worth it. You can wash, dry, and style these like your own hair, but use a deep conditioner to prevent split ends and breakage. I’ve found washing and drying synthetic hair to be more of a challenge, because the plastic fibers stretch when combed and tangle quite easily.

Have you experimented with extensions? What’s worked for you and what would you never try again? Share in the comments!

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Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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5 Responses

  1. You can use dry shampoo on synthetic hair to dull the shine! Of course, the cheaper the synthetic wig, the plastic-y-er it looks, so sometimes even that won’t work.

  2. I had tape-ins for about a year, and they are actually quite fast to install (about 45 mins total) but taking them out takes longer and can be a bit painful. Mine lasted about 5-6 weeks before they needed a “bump up” (removal and re-install) and the bump up was usually done in 2 separate appointments. The hair itself is cheaper than bonded hair and (in my experience) can be re-used 3-4 times before it gets ratty-feeling and should be replaced. I *loved* them! But my own (fine) hair suffered a LOT of breakage.
    I would characterize tape-ins as a great economical long-wear option, but may be damaging to fine hair or sensitive scalps.

    1. Yeah… my stylist won’t even do tape in or bonded because of the potential for damage to fine hair. She does beads and this new thing—Natural Beaded Rows—that is a little pricey for me, but goals. 😀

  3. Hi Abby, Thanks for sharing this article, this is a very helpful blog for the beginners like me who started using hair extensions. please do write on Best Hair Braid Extensions for women it would be helpful in selecting the best products. looking forward to it. thanks in advance.

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