Janis Boatwright doesn’t speak Spanish. “Buenos dias. That’s all I can tell you,” Boatwright chuckles.
Yet, she’s part of a growing number of African-American women who are saying “adios” to black hair salons and “hola” to Dominican hair salons. “I like the fullness you get in your hair,” said Boatwright, 49, of Baltimore. “You don’t have to have a relaxer; you can get your hair blown out with the brush.”
According to Jennifer Drew, creator of roundbrushhair.com, a Website that tracks and promotes Dominican hair salons nationwide, African-American women make up an estimated 95 percent of the clientele at Dominican hair shops. Dominican salons are known for their signature hair styling that includes roller setting the hair and using a round brush and blow dryer to finish the look. Drew said the technique, along with their fast walk-in service and low prices makes them more appealing to black women. In Maryland, the average cost for basic service is $35, compared to $50 at black salons.
“You can afford to go back weekly, whereas if you’re spending $50 to $55 [at a black hair salon], maybe you’ll go once a month,” explained Drew.
Based in Jessup, Maryland, Drew is a liaison and translator for stylists and clients who face a language barrier. She’s also African-American. “Everybody’s always surprised,” Drew laughs.
The 27-year-old Washington, D.C. native became an “honorary Dominican” in 2003, when she spent months in the Dominican Republic learning the language and culture of the people. She loved the Dominican hair experience so much that she donated all of her clothes just to fill her suitcase with their products on the return home. Trying to replicate her experience in D.C., however, proved difficult. “I couldn’t find [any Dominican salons]” says Drew. “The ones I did find, I didn’t care for.”
In 2006, Drew launched her Website to help others find Dominican salons beyond the New York area, which they have exclusively called home for years. Since then, the salons have rapidly spread across the U.S., including Maryland, which went from five locations on her site to 65 and counting.
“I’m so glad to work for the Americans,” says Julia Zapata, owner of Julia Dominican Hair Salon in Pikesville, MD, which opened in October. “A lot of black Americans… they’re coming to us because they understand we care [for] the hair.” But the reception isn’t warm everywhere.
“What’s cheaper is not always better,” asserts Deborah Wiggs, owner of Maryland-based Xscape Hair Salon. Wiggs, who is African-American, says the styling technique used at most Dominican salons can eventually lead to baldness in black women. “Their hair is a different texture than ours,” says Wiggs. “You’ve got a brush with bristles close together and you’re ripping through the hair. It’s damaging, especially for women with chemically-treated hair. ”
Wiggs’ daughter, Tonya Wiggs, 31, also does hair at Xscape. She said while some of her clients left the salon for a Dominican salon, all eventually came back. “I actually had a very good friend go. She just wanted to see what it was like, and when she called me she said ‘My hair… it’s fluffy, it’s blowing in the wind, but I have about three strands left.’”
The Wiggs compared the rise of Dominican hair salons to Asian nail salons, which they say all but wiped out “the African-American nail tech” because of their quick service and cheap products and prices. The pair, however, isn’t concerned that Dominican hair salons will have the same impact.
“When your nails start breaking you might not like it, but everyone doesn’t notice. When your hair is gone, everyone notices,” explains Tonya. Still, she believes the popularity of Dominican salons should serve as a wake-up call to African-American hair stylists, who no longer have the stronghold they once had on the black hair industry.
“As business owners and hair stylists, African-American salons really need to step their game up so they won’t lose clients.” For some salons, it may be too late. After two years of patronizing Dominican hair salons, Boatwright said she can’t imagine going back to black. “I wouldn’t say never, but I know for right now, I’m going to keep going to the Dominican salons.”