Saltwater Portrait

Dorcas Irizarry: Freelancing with style

Former Rehoboth Beach hairdresser finds new role in life
Dorcas Irizarry gives her daughter, Tabitha, a trim. BY MELISSA STEELE
July 19, 2012

Dorcas Irizarry is an artist. But instead of canvas, clay or stone, her preferred medium is hair.

"It's an art form to me, an extension of everything I loved in my life," said Irizarry, who worked at Bad Hair Day in Rehoboth Beach for nine years before recently striking out on her own as a freelance stylist. "It's the love of form and line."

The sixth of seven children born to Rosalie and Clarence Voshell of Felton, Irizarry grew up on a farm where her parents still live and went to Lake Forest schools. The farm life of cows, chickens, goats and horses didn't appeal to her - she never took to horseback riding the way many young girls do, and she never enjoyed farm-to-table - especially when it involved a farm animal pet. Instead, she was always trying to create something, whether making a sculpture out of bubble gum or new designs with her food.

When an older sister-in-law opened a salon nearby, Irizarry discovered the world of hair.

"I always wanted to be an artist," she said. "I drew and loved to sculpt. I always thought, how hard would it be to cut someone's hair?"

So at 15, with a pair of blunt children's scissors meant for cutting paper and not much more in hand, Irizarry convinced her friend that she could give her the trendy Farrah Fawcett hairstyle that every young girl growing up in the 1980s longed for.

"They were the type of scissors that had glue and tape stuck to them, but the haircut looked pretty good," she said.

Her friend was happy with the cut, and pretty soon other 15-year-old girls were lining up for Irizarry to cut their hair.

"I started doing haircuts in school, even in study hall, sometimes," she said with her easy laugh and winning smile. "I got good at doing hair anywhere. Anywhere there was a chair or space."

Her class clients expanded from girls wanting the latest layered look to boys who needed a quick trim before a wrestling match. Soon, family members no longer bothered spending time and money at a salon. All the while, Irizarry kept using paper scissors or whatever was available.

"I don't know why I didn't invest in a good pair of small sewing scissors," she said.

However, working with mediocre equipment wasn't all bad. Irizarry said it forced her to develop and refine her cutting style – a foundation that improved immensely when she finally invested in the $500 Japanese shears she uses today.

College and more

Irizarry graduated from Lake Forest High School and enrolled at Eastern Nazarene College near Boston. There, she majored in psychology but still found herself drawn to hair.

"I was trying to be studious, but anytime someone was talking about hair, I was like, I can do that," she said.

By then, she had invested in a small pair of sewing scissors, and she always had a head of real hair to work with.

Her scissors always with her, Irizarry said she would cut hair wherever: the dorm, quad or classroom. She even cut a girl's bangs in a bathroom for $5 after the girl admired the way Irizarry's bangs fell.

"I always had a sense of pride to see my haircuts walking around campus," she said.

The experience also gave her the opportunity to cut real hair and learn how to handle curls, cowlicks and various hair textures - something you can't learn from hair dummies at beauty school, she said.

And she learned: have scissors, will travel.

"I realized I had a skill that I could do anywhere," she said.

Irizarry left college mid-year her sophomore year and moved around from New Jersey to Colorado before returning to Delaware.

By chance, she saw an ad for an apprenticeship at Okemah's Cut Above in Dover. She earned minimum wage, but she gained the time and experience needed to become a licensed beautician.

"I thought, that's easy. I already know how to cut hair. I was like, why not?" she said. "Okemah's allowed me to take all the practice I'd had since age 15 and use it."

She learned a few tricks of the trade through her internship, but understanding how to run a business was the most important lesson of all.

Business owner

Shortly after her daughter, Tabitha, was born, Irizarry struck out on her own and opened Looks Hair/Art Studio in Camden. Artwork by local artists adorning the walls and fine china with fancy pastries set out for waiting patrons were part of her personal touch.

"I like intimate and special, and for people to feel that they are the most important thing at the time," she said.

She ran her studio for 12 years, but found it harder to find like-minded beauticians to staff her studio.

"It's a lost art to find someone who wants the quality first and money second," she said.

Too many beauticians today try to book as many clients as possible and get them in and out without giving them a quality haircut, she said.

Irizarry eventually sold her business and began working at Bad Hair Day.

Beaching it

Working at the Rehoboth Beach salon was a refreshing change of pace.

"It was great to tap in on new energy," she said. "There's such a cross section of interesting people that it's never a dull moment - a lot of artistic people live there."

Her clients came from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Annapolis.

"It was a sense of accomplishment because I was serving people who can afford the best, and they appreciate you," she said.

A few years after working at the beach, however, Irizarry received life-changing news.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer and began a path of treatment, tests and doctor visits to fight the disease. Eventually it paid off; she'll be cancer free for six years in September.

The cancer scare also taught her to live life to its fullest.

"I really don't fret over the small things that other people do," she said. "I'm resourceful, and I'll find a way to make things work - but I want to be happy."

Her freelance status gives her the freedom to do a few things she might not do otherwise.

She and her daughter have worked as extras on the sets of movies including "Syriana," and they're waiting to hear back on "Iron Man III," being filmed in North Carolina. In between, Irizarry is a regular at music festivals such as Lollapalooza and Bamboozle, and she already has her three-day wristband ready to go for the upcoming Firefly festival in Dover.

Her favorite band is the Foo Fighters. She's hoping to run into frontman Dave Grohl someday during one of his visits to the beach.

In the meantime, her customers have been keeping her plenty busy.

"I cater to a small group of busy families," she said. "I can go to their houses and do everyone's hair and leave."

In a way, life comes back full circle. It feels like she's in high school and college again cutting hair for her friends because she loves it, she said.

"It's all about finding the joy in life and not the negative," she said. "Life is about the people you're with. I'm happiest knowing I can help someone else and can make them happy."