Writer / Kris Parker

Photographer / Jim Eichelman

For many dads, the thought of fixing their daughter’s hair might send them into a tailspin. But this is not the case for Josh Wikel and his 4-year-old daughter Ella Rose.

“The hair-braiding adventure probably began when Ella Rose was about 2 1/2, and I realized early on that it was something I wanted to learn how to do. As I tied up what little hair she had into something that looked like an insect antenna on the top of her head, I realized I was going to have to learn how to style her hair when it got longer.

“Google and YouTube became my best friends as soon as her hair grew long enough. Ella Rose was patient with my efforts from the beginning, and now that I’m home during the week, it has just become our daily routine,” said Wikel.

However, Wikel soon learned through this experience that it was more about his relationship with Ella Rose than how her hair looked. “Braiding provides us with bonding moments daily. We huddle around the phone or look at our hair books while snuggling before bed, looking at pictures for potential styles. In the morning, we get to chat and plan out the day. We get to trade smiles as her preschool teachers or strangers at the store compliment her. She began calling it ‘sharing our smiles.’ It’s seeing that smile on her face and pride in her eyes that keeps me wanting to learn more,” he said.

Ella Rose echoed this sentiment in her own words. “Sometimes he takes too long. And sometimes he has to start over, and we miss the line at school. But he makes it pretty.”

The goal is that this bond isn’t just for Ella Rose’s childhood, but it will be a tie that connects this father and daughter for life. “It’s my hope that braiding will always provide us with a connection, something we can always come back and share — that no matter what age she is, she will know that she can come to me, and we can sit down for a braid session and talk about whatever is happening in her life at the time,” he said. “And of course, my dream is that she will let me do her hair for prom and maybe even her wedding.”

Right now, however, Ella Rose isn’t thinking about her wedding; for now, she’s content to look like she stepped out of a “Star Wars” film. She said her favorite hairstyles are “Princess Leia in the snow and Princess Leia in the clouds and Princess Leia buns. And Rey. And pigtails.”

As a result of his experience, Wikel has not kept his hair-braiding skills to himself. He has since gone on to become one of the founders of Daddy Daughter Hair Factory, a collective group of fathers and daughters across the United States working in their individual communities to promote bonding within the father-daughter relationship simply through the act of hair braiding. Wikel and Ella Rose have launched a group here in Greenwood.

Teaching other dads how to braid was not what Wikel set out to do, but when he realized that he wasn’t the only one with this interest, he became inspired. “We were often jokingly told that we should open our own salon or start a class, but with Boy Scouts, gymnastics, school and everything else that comes with having three kids, I didn’t even know where to begin.

“Then someone shared a story on Facebook of a single dad in Florida who had started offering free braiding classes to other dads. I shared some pictures of our hairdos with him and his daughter, and we quickly struck up a friendship,” Wikel shared. “Soon after, dads from Pennsylvania, Kansas, Texas and Colorado joined in, and we were all spurring each other on to start classes.”

The classes Wikel offers are not intended to be of the “one-and-done” variety, but so far, many of his dads are at a beginner level. As Wikel explained, “In one class, I had a dad who already knew the basics, so while the rest of the class was going over the three-strand braid, I taught him about the fishtail and French braid. I want dads to be able to jump in at any time and feel like they can come back to learn something new. At the very least, I hope a class can give dads and daughters another moment of one-on-one time.”

The response from dads and their daughters has been nothing short of affirming. “There has been a moment in every class where I stop and just look around the classroom. It is an amazing feeling to watch the smiles forming on everyone’s faces and to see the bond between father and daughter strengthen as the braids come together,” Wikel said. “The dads may come in with a sarcastic attitude, but once they tie off that first braid and see the smile and pride on their daughter’s face, you can see them try even harder with the next braid.”

With each class, Wikel has specific examples of how relationships were changed. “In one class, I had a dad bring his 11-year-old. I saw him again about a week after the class, and he told me she didn’t have too much faith in him or the class when they came, but he said she kept the braided bun he made in her hair for two straight days, even wearing a shower cap to not mess up his style. That is the power of the bond of braiding,” he said.

Another dad, Jason Howe, joined a recent class with his two youngest daughters. “I thought the class would be fun,” he said. “Plus I do get the girls ready for school sometimes, and with me, they’ve always been limited to a ponytail. I figured they would like it if I had some more skills.”

And participants don’t leave simply with their newfound skills. Daddy Daughter Hair Factory has found a sponsor in SoCozy (a New York-based company which makes salon formula product for kids), and dads and their daughters leave the class with a goodie bag including things such as full-size detangler spray, full-size styling cream, a large brush and a comb.

For more information about Daddy Daughter Hair Factory, visit them on Facebook at facebook.com/Daddydaughterhairfactory or their website, www.daddydaughterhairfactory101.com.

To find out about upcoming classes, email Wikel at daddydaughterhairfactoryindy@gmail.com. Wikel and Ella Rose are willing to take their classes “on the road” as well; email him to schedule a class with a group (gymnastics, Scouts, etc.).

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