Breaking Stereotypes

In His Spare Time, Principal Dancer Benjamin Freemantle Gives Free Haircuts to San Francisco's Homeless

San Francisco Ballet principal Benjamin Freemantle. Drew Altizer Photography, Courtesy SFB

Back when he was a living in a dorm as an international student at San Francisco Ballet School, Benjamin Freemantle developed a new skill: cutting hair. "Most of us didn't have the financial means to go out and get a San Francisco haircut," he says. So he started cutting his fellow dancers' hair and his own.

"I actually kinda lied to my friend and told him I'd done it before," admits Freemantle, with a laugh. "But it turned out really well!"



Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

To this day, Freemantle, who's now a principal at San Francisco Ballet, continues to do his own hair, in addition to some SFB School students' and company members'. Purely self-taught, he has beefed up his skills over the years thanks to tutorials on YouTube.

But Freemantle's hair-cutting hobby has grown into more of a mission: He's expanded his clientele, offering free cuts to San Francisco's homeless community.

"It started when I had an apartment, like a block from the ballet, and every day there was this homeless man who lived in my alley," says Freemantle. The two became friendly, saying hello to each other. "Then one day I invited him to come up, take a shower and have a beer—just relax out of the cold." Freemantle offered his neighbor a haircut and a shave, and he accepted. "I think it meant a lot to him that someone saw him and wanted to help—even if it wasn't money or food, that's what I could offer at the time."

Freemantle in McIntyre's Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

So Freemantle thought about how he could build on this experience. "I had the idea—it was a little scary—to go into the Tenderloin, which is our homeless district," he says. He brought a stool, his haircutting set—basic shears from Amazon, combs, a brush and a spray bottle—and a sign that read "Need a Haircut?"

"I cut five people's hair my first day, and the next week I came back again." Freemantle continues to go to the Tenderloin sporadically as his schedule allows.

On a recent visit, he says he ran into some of the people whose hair he'd previously cut. "They were really thankful, just saying how they got a job interview or they're working at Burger King now," says Freemantle, noting how they "felt a little more welcomed back into society."

Reflecting on the experience, he says, "It's reinstilled that they're human—they're someone's daughter, someone's son, niece, nephew, you know? There's a history there and we don't know it." Given San Francisco's large homeless population, it's an especially relevant message. "People tend to throw them to the side without a care, and I don't think that's the way to move forward."

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