High Hats

September 30, 2012

Extreme headpieces that can change your performance


Misty Copeland (with Herman Cornejo) in
Firebird: “Communicate with your partner to see what changes are needed.” Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.


Headdresses and hats can be as delicate as a tiny tiara, or as audacious as an explosion of feathers and sequins. They’re intrinsic to the persona of a role and can change the way you feel onstage—and the way you dance. Dance Magazine spoke to four dancers on how the hat can complete the whole picture.

The Final Touch

Logistically, the hat is the cherry on top of a look, put on after all other items. Richard Move, known for his outrageously funny re-imaginings of Martha Graham, says donning a headdress signals performance readiness. “For Martha @…The 1963 Interview, I take at least two hours for makeup, the wig, and finally a headpiece,” he says. “But it’s not until that finishing headdress that I’m fully transformed. It’s the last touch before magic begins.”

That magic is Move’s ability to convey Graham’s essence onstage. “Headpieces complete the richness and authenticity of character,” he says. “In Graham’s case, she wore beautiful Isamu Noguchi–designed pieces. She placed them on her head to signify a deep psychological state.”


Richard Move: “A small shift in the headpiece may feel like an earthquake.” Courtesy R. Move.


Martine van Hamel, former American Ballet Theatre star and a current faculty member at JKO, adds that a headdress also suggests the show’s era. “The costume indicates who you are and the time period you’re part of,” she says. For van Hamel, the large headdress she wore as Countess Sybille in Raymonda in 2005 placed her in medieval Hungary.


Martine van Hamel in
Raymonda: “Make your hat even more secure than you’d think necessary.” Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.


Misty Copeland, the ABT soloist who recently starred in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Firebird, says that the extravagant red headpiece helped change the title role from the traditional version into Ratmansky’s more contemporary presentation. “Alexei’s Firebird was different: It wasn’t a classical, ladylike tutu look,” she explains. “The headdress was created on me, and we first started with one that showed my hair: It looked feminine and birdlike. But eventually it turned into a skullcap that covered my entire head. This made me more of a creature versus a woman. It was a crucial touch in the evolution of Alexei’s vision.”

Putting It Together

Wearing headdresses or hats requires special attention to the fitting process. “When you first get your wig and hat fit, be conscious of how you’re prepping in terms of pin curls and wig caps. Then, repeat the preparation exactly the same for the show,” advises Amanda Kloots-Larsen, whose most recent Broadway gig was the revival of Follies. “Also, make sure to try out any tricky choreography that might affect your head right there during the fitting so things don’t change onstage.”

Van Hamel says the key to hat safety is to “pin, pin, pin. You need tons of bobby pins and a horsehair layer to pin into. You always want your hat to be more secure than you’d think necessary.”

Copeland advises trying a few different hair-dos to find which works best under major head gear. “I started with a French twist, but the bobby pins didn’t have anything to hold on to,” she says. “So then I tried pin curls like it was a wig, with a wig cap over the curls. Later, we added horsehair so I could add bobby pins for more security without showing human hair.”

Physical Force

Once in place, the hat struggle isn’t over. With a super-heavy headdress, your performing will change: Van Hamel even got assistance from two ladies-in-waiting to help hold up her Countess headpiece.

For Kloots-Larsen, her humongous headdress in Follies was a game changer. “My main headdress was in the shape of a fan with huge feathers reaching about three and a half feet tall,” she remembers. “It was stunningly beautiful. They fit it to me with a turban-like base and it slipped on like a glove—comfortably. But, I was on the top catwalk looking down on everyone for 40 minutes in six-inch heels!” When she first wore it at the out-of-town tryout, there was a learning curve. “I had a ton of choreography and a fancy costume that all got changed in response to the headdress. I couldn’t look left or right, so any extreme movement was taken out.

Sometimes the feathers got stuck in the back wall, so I’d have to gracefully take them out without turning! I learned to maintain a very straight posture to protect my neck and back, while looking down.” A massage on days off became a necessity.

Richard Move says adjusting to these types of needs in rehearsal before you reach the stage is crucial. “Your head is already the heaviest part of your body.

Adding a headpiece is almost like dancing on a raked stage,” he says. “You can accommodate, but you need to rehearse all movement with the piece itself on. A small shift in the headpiece will feel like an earthquake at first! The headpiece takes on a life of its own that you have to integrate into the performance. Holding your abdomen well and lifting your chin is especially important.”


Amanda Kloots-Larsen in
Follies, Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy Follies.


Copeland adds that partnering while wearing a headpiece requires extra communication. “You may have done certain movement in the studio, but onstage the headpiece may be jabbing your partner in the eye,” she says, with a laugh. “Communicate and see what shifts are needed: Ask, ‘If I tilt my chin down, will  it work better?’ ”

Despite the challenges headpieces present, in the end, they’re another way to express the story at hand—and a dramatic way at that. “Stand tall! If you’re in a huge headdress the audience can’t miss you. You will be the focal point,” says Kloots-Larsen. “Enjoy it!”

Lauren Kay is a NYC dancer and writer.