Myth and History of Henna: Ancient Cosmological Cosmetic for Dancers – ALLAF 013
Dancers have been conditioning and coloring their hair and skin with henna for thousands of years beginning in Egypt and landing in India centuries later. Similar to the possible mirror image of the path of belly dance as we know it. In this show we will dive into the myth, mystery and history of henna.
Henna, found in the hair and nails of mummies entombed in ancient Egypt, cooling the heads, hands and feet of women for thousands of years throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. Dying textiles. Allowing brides to stay still and relax as intricate designs stain her hands and feet at the henna party before her wedding.
We’ll get into the Danceable Ritual and Danceable Song soon. Let’s linger on the history and mythology of henna for a moment first.
Henna has been described as a “cosmological cosmetic…a way of making the sacred visible, and communicating with a higher power”. These are the words of a women’s group in India called the Anchal Project . They are referring to mehandi, (aka me-han-dee), when henna paste is used to decorate skin.
Similar to the patterns that emerge when we dance, the patterns in mehandi travel through the artist. These patterns come from nature, masters, beautifully patterned carpets and clothing, and maybe even the musings of higher powers. The Anchal Project also states that “In India the beauty of a woman’s creativity is celebrated through the practice of Mehndi.”
What a great statement. I’m going to take is a step further. “Everywhere in the world, the beauty of a woman’s creativity is celebrated through the practice of dance.”
Ok, I can’t help it. One more step: “The beauty of creativity is celebrated through dance.”
Creating quotes is so much fun. Back to henna.
Henna is also used as an oracle. The depth of color staining the skin can be interpreted to show how successful a marriage will be, and whether good luck is coming. And some say there is magic in henna, fertility, and protection against evil.
I only saw this written on Habiba.org, but there may be a legend that the henna flower was a favorite of the Prophet Mohammad and he dyed his beard with henna. That makes henna even more special.
According to the research of Catherine Cartwright-Jones on hennapage.com, henna and mehandi were not seriously studied as cultural expression in the past because most writers and anthropologists were men. Therefore they did not have access to or take notice of “what is essentially a women’s art.” The 14th century book “Medicine of the Prophet” (Al_Jawziyya, tr. Johnstone 1998) lists specific uses for henna, including treatment of migraines.” And Cartwright-Jones asserts that the male poet Ovid at the time of Christ did imply that Roman women were dying their hair with henna.
Catherine Cartwright-Jones http://hennapage.com/henna/encyclopedia/mastersessay/chapter1masters.pdf
It’s kind of amazing how we have all of these technological advancements, and we are still using henna the same way women did thousands of years ago. Dance has changed so much since the introduction of recorded music. So much more precise and planned. Henna remains unscripted.
And the smell of henna is ancient. If the desert sun and the obscured cool earth beneath had a combined smell, I think it would smell like dried ground henna leaves.
Once a woman in Hampi Southern India offered to teach me ancient beauty secrets. I was in my 20s, getting all of the sleep I wanted, had no interest in makeup, and I declined the invitation, still wondering years later what she was going to teach me. Probably henna application, and maybe something women do with neem, turmeric, moringa, and so on, but I’ll never know. This lingering invitation motivated me to try health and beauty rituals from all over the world.
Moroccan bath houses, Ayurvedic massage, Thai massage, Balinese facials, Chinese acupuncture. Pardon my French but these time-tested treatments are the good shit! We are opened up, calmed down, and forced to stay in one place just for a little while. And most of them involve plants and other elements of the natural world.
All of the plants we encounter have a purpose, just like us. And some even argue that plants respond energetically to the thoughts and actions of humans and other living things. The book The Secret Life of Plants makes some fun assertions coming from 1960s polygraph tests of plants in different conditions, and those kinds of experiments are still happening today. Measuring and documenting how plants use electricity to communicate, similar to the way humans communicate. Plants may be dancing with us with electricity we can’t see with our eyes and we don’t even know it!
If you are outside now or you can see outside, look around you. If you are at home, open your fridge. There are beautiful plants all around you, right? If you don’t think that’s true, maybe you want to do something about that. Buy a couple vegetables and admire their beauty while you prepare and eat them. Nurture an edible houseplant. Reroute your default path outside so that you pass by some plants that you enjoy seeing. It might involve just crossing the street a block before you usually do or something simple like that.
Back to the danceable ritual for this henna episode of A Little Lighter. The henna we use for body art and for conditioning and coloring our hair comes from the leaves of a bush.
Gently break off a tiny piece of a plant outside or in your house. Just enough to roll it between your fingertips and smell it. Close your eyes. Roll the piece of the plant between your fingertips right under your nose and smell it as you inhale, and start an upper body undulation. Scoop your heart up with your rib cage and let the undulation travel all the way down to your belly. Do 2 more of these upper body undulations, inhaling the fragrance from the plant each time. You are smelling the life of the plant. If the plant you are holding is definitely edible, eat it. Continue to undulate as you bring the plant inside of you.
If you didn’t eat the plant, bring your hand away from your nose and open your fingers so you can see how the piece of the plant has changed. Move into a pose inspired by the way the plant looks now. Take a deep breath in and out. Plants are helping and healing us all the time. They are in the air we breathe, and the water we drink. And plants can inspire our dance if we take a moment to see how they may be dancing as well. The trees are swaying. Flowers are blossoming
So I couldn’t find a good henna song, but I have a song that would be great to listen to while hennaing your hair! And it’s from Afganhistan, one of the countries where wedding celebrations include a “henna night”. So it seems fitting so spotlight this song.
(feature a rhythm and instrument too – Anna’s idea)
Chashmak Bezan Setara Slow Afghan rock by Ahmad Zahir.
The man who made this song famous was the Afghan Elvis, Ahmad Zahir. According to ahmadzahir.com, Ahmad died when he was only 33 years old. He was born in rural Afghanistan, studied medicine in the US and became a doctor. He revived folk songs and fused famous old poetry with modern instruments and concepts. Our band sings another one of his songs Layli Jan, which is less danceable but oh so good. http://www.ahmadzahir.com/biography/
Chashmak Bezan Setara is the name of this song, and that phrase is repeated throughout.
Setara is Persian or Farsi for star or fate. The words of this funky old song translate to something like this:
Entice me with your mesmerizing eyes oh star. The clouds have drifted away. You make my heart sing. I am sleeping and you are awake. I am tranquil and you are working. Your every gesture graceful. You have sparkled again. You notice I admire you and you gestured to me.
Trumpet, harmonium or accordion, tablas, a drum that sounds like a drum machine. Clarinet or soprano saxophone? In other songs by this artist the electric guitar sounds sitar-like. He sang in Farsi, and Pashto and Dari and other languages. This was during the 1970s, when Kabul was called “The Paris of Central Asia”. The Afghani Embassador to the US (Mr. Jawad) said then that Afghanistan was “less tribal than New York.” A Communist coup in the 1978 initiated the unrest that we still see today. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/weekinreview/18bumiller.html
So when you hear this song, you are listening to an Afghanistan you have probably never imagined.
DAMN SEXY DANCE MOVE
Palms Out, Palms Down Kuchi Crown
This dance move comes from Bollywood inspired choreography to the song Afghan Jalebi by the Fleur Estelle of London. The descriptions says it was created for a bridal client. If you wear a kuchi crown or more modern head jewelry an Afghani bride might wear while you do this move, you will showcase that crown by framing it with your hands.
From what I read, kuchi coins are not in style in Afghanistan, and most of them now come from Pakistan.
Return to your solid but relaxed belly dance posture. Subtle smile on your face, chest open, shoulders low and relaxed, slightly cupped hands with energy all the way to your fingertips, pelvis tucked, knees soft. For this move your feet will be side by side and close together with equal weight on both feet.
We are going to outline the curves of our body with the back of our hands.
Point fingers down to the ground at your sides with palms out. The backs of your hands are against the sides of your hips. Palms are facing away from you at your sides. Smoothly glide your hands up past your shoulders, and neck tracing the front curves of your body. When you get to the ears, the tips of your middle fingers meet each other and your cupped palms are hovering over the top back crown of your head where a yamaka would sit. Bent arms are open nicely framing your face and hair. You should barely be able to see your elbows out of your peripheral vision. Make sure those elbows don’t creep in and block any of your face or your imaginary Kuchi crown. Try this again and add some slow hip circles. You can finish the move by reversing the move and sliding your hands down your hair and the backs of your hands down your sides back to your hips.
As far as I can tell, Afghanistan is still not a great place to be a woman who loves to dance. But according to an article on Gildedserpent.com by a journalist belly dancer who traveled to Kabul in 2002, in private some women in Afghanistan belly dance for each other. I have found that belly dance speaks to many people throughout the Middle East and Central Asia who would never belly dance in public. Belly dance moves and videos influence the way many women dance for each other in private and at women-only gatherings. http://www.gildedserpent.com/articles20/aphgandance.htm
I like to keep it light on this show, but it’s worth mentioning the sadness associated with henna as well.
Because it is part of many wedding traditions, henna is part of a bride leaving her home to live with her husband. “Henna Night” is a pre-wedding tradition in Afghanistan, Turkey and probably other countries as well. Maybe even all over the Levant, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula where belly dance thrives in public and/or behind closed doors. In Turkey they often play a really sad folk song at Henna Night called Yüksek Yüksek Tepelere, or “In the High Hills”, which sounds romantic at first. But the lyrics say Don’t let them build a home in the high hills, far from family, etc. The lyrics are heart breaking, making the mother-of-the-bride weep. Maybe I’ll feature it as a dramatic danceable song in a future show.
In India “henna night” is referred to as a mehandi party. Because of the use of henna in this wedding ritual, we can also see it as joyful, especially for family members who see a woman who will be united with someone that will bring her closer to being the best possible version of herself.
The palms out part of this move could show off mehandi on the palms of your hands.
FEATURED LIGHTEN MY BODY FOOD
Since henna is not edible, let’s celebrate something that looks like henna powder but we can eat. Matcha! Green tea leaves that are steamed and baked and ground.
My favorite way to consume matcha is chilled with soymilk. Forget chemical food dye! Matcha turns food bright green naturally. Glowing with chlorophyll and caffeine. This stuff can give you a serious energy rush and jitters if you drink too much, so use it wisely.
And like henna it’s another green powder that has been enjoyed for centuries and is mixed until the lumps disappear. Matcha is used in tea ceremonies in Japan, and this is the younger, higher quality grade. For my bachelorette party, we had hot matcha in a tea ceremony in a Japanese tea house in the woods in upstate New York, followed by a bhangra show and a funk show.
They make special ceremonial whisks for matcha, but you can just vigorously mix a teaspoons of matcha with ½-1 cup of hot water and enjoy it as tea or shake 1 teaspoons up with almond milk, oat milk or soy milk and enjoy it as a matcha milkshake. Matcha powder may have the same amount of antioxidants as regular loose leaf green tea
Some people sprinkle culinary matcha on soy yogurt, granola, and home-made cookies. Some East Asian crackers and sweets glow green with matcha as well.
Just like henna, there quality of matcha powder ranges widely. And Matcha contains the stems and leave veins as well as the tea leaves, and it is ground with metal blades instead of stones like regular green tea. It is used in ceremony. https://worldteanews.com/tea-business-resources/not-all-powdered-green-tea-is-matcha
MAKE YOU SHINE COSTUME TIP
Sew uncomfortable jewelry you love (earrings, anklets and necklaces) to a headband or dance bra. This way you can make your own kuchi crown that doesn’t get stuck in your hair as much.
Indian anklets get stuck on skirt hems, so I sewed some to a dance bra and they look great.
Hennaing your hair can rejuvenate you. Performing a beauty ritual that makes you feel good at least once a month can have a big impact on your happiness as well as the way you look.
Sifted henna makes our hair softer, happier, and vibrant with plant-based red hues. Chemical dye does this with chemical magic, but the long term effects of using chemical dye on our hair and skin are unknown. Henna has been used on hair for many many lifetimes. And we do not know the impact of chemical dye on our water supply when it is produced and washed down the drain. Henna comes from a plant. Many say that henna should not be used on hair that is already chemically dyed, but if it is pure henna with no metallic salts, etc some say you still can use henna on dyed hair just fine.
Using henna to color hair is messy and it takes time, like learning how to improvise after being trained to dance choreography or ATS to canned music in a dance studio. And it’s still worth it. I love turning my silver streaks to copper with leaves from India. My hair is brown, so I use a mix of henna and indigo to cover gray and keep the colors in my hair close to each other.
Hopefully these tips will help you skip the potential problems with using henna to color your hair and get you right to the benefits of using henna.
#1 Buy quality henna from reliable suppliers
There’s definitely a lot of chemical henna out there. You can also buy 2 year old henna that won’t color your hair as well, and that’s just a waste of your time. The good stuff contains nothing but the pure plant lawsonia inermis, it has been sealed and stored well, and is less than 2 years old. Go with a supplier who wants long term customers.
I was getting good quality henna and indigo from mehandi.com. Last year they shipped me a big batch of Rajasthani Twilight henna and Zekhara Indigo that faded faster than previous batches, and I tried leaving the henna indigo mix in my hair for 5 hours instead of 3, applying more of it, etc. So far my last attempt looks good. Not sure if it will fade fast again. I did give them a call to let them know the last batch I got from them was not as good as the henna they’ve been shipping me for the last 8 years.
I tried henna from The Henna Guys, and that faded fast. They suggested applying henna first, rinsing, and then applying indigo. No way. I’m not spending an entire day doing a two step process with mud on my head. And they suggested using cold water to rinse, and not using shampoo. Their suggestions may make a difference in the color, but that’s beyond what I want to do on my spa day.
I’m searching for another reliable henna supplier now. Let me know if you have one!
There is black henna out there, and it is dangerous. If the henna someone is selling will turn your skin black, say no thanks. It’s not henna at all. Stick with henna that is 100% natural and from lawsonia inermis. Indigo is not black henna. It’s indigo! Indigofera tinctorial. Another flowering hot-climate plant.
And sometimes henna producers spray green dye on henna leaves before drying them to make the powder a more intense green. They hope buyers will think the intense color of the powder will mean it colors our hair and skin better. You want to buy dye-free, tested, triple sifted henna for hair. The quality of henna varies widely.
And there are Nupur mixes like “9 herbs blend” that are fun to use and can do a great job conditioning hair, but I don’t know if it’s actually real natural henna. They only recommend letting these Nurpur mixes sit for 2-3 hours after mixing and pure henna is supposed to sit overnight, which I think means 6-10 hours after mixing, so I bet there’s something else going on. Anything that comes from a regular beauty supply store makes me wary. Misleading labeling, excluding ingredients on labels, ingredients created in labs. Just like with food, it’s worth spending more money on natural makeup and wasting less money on unnatural chemical junk.
#2 Schedule time to henna. Stay home for 4 hours if you can and enjoy it!
A spa day at home is not just a luxury – it also enhances your ability to deliver your special gifts to the world and glow while you do it. Do whatever you need to do to block off four-six hours for you. Ask for help. Guard your schedule. Say no to an invitation. You can make a four hour spa day happen once a month.
My 2 year old is part of my henna spa day. He’s totally intrigued by the process of mixing and rinsing, and he loves the smell. He’s seen me henna my hair a dozen times, so now he doesn’t try to touch it or get upset while I rinse it out with him standing beside the tub.
I mix the henna the night before applying it then get up early, mix the indigo powder with water right before application and then mix the henna and indigo pastes together immediately, apply the mix to my hair, wait 2-5 hours, and then take a nice bath with an Aztec healing clay face mask. So relaxing. If you are leaving henna in your hair for more than 2 hours, wrapping your hair in plastic wrap or even a clean used plastic bag cut open will keep the henna from getting too hard to easily rinse out.
Sleeping with wet hair that has just been hennaed may stain your pillow case and pillow as well as your sheets. The best results come from hennaing hair first thing in the morning and letting hair dry fully after washing it.
You can definitely leave the house with henna in your hair. I saw a woman working in a restaurant kitchen in Nepal with henna in her hair and I respected her making it all work. You can wrap your head in saran wrap and tie a fancy turban with a scarf or put on a hat and go on your way without worrying about people wondering if you have mud in your hair. It can be really nice to just stay home and make your surroundings better while making your hair more beautiful.
#3 If it’s your first time, invite someone to help
Ask a friend to help you when it’s time to rinse the henna out. Maybe they can also be your wing man with application. Better yet, ask a friend who knows how to henna already to let you watch them or henna your hair when they do theirs. The hair stylists I have asked in the US were not willing to henna in their salons. Maybe the process takes too long and is too messy. In India it was always easy for me to find someone to apply henna. I think many people apply henna to their hair and skin at home in India. Family members and house helpers probably help.
#4 Experiment until you find your perfect mix
What do you mix henna with? It’s up to you. Monthly henna experimentation is a satisfying exercise in alchemy! Try different ratios of henna paste and indigo. People add essential oils, coffee, tea, citrus, etc. Citrus irritated my scalp when I tried it, so I just stick with pure water, henna and indigo.
For my brown hair speckled with silver, I mix 1 cup henna powder with just enough water to make it the consistency of frosting. I mix the henna at least 3 hours before applying it to my hair. In my experience, letting mixed henna sit at least 6 hours after mixing makes the hair color last longer and letting henna sit mixed longer than 10 hours before applying, weakens the color.
After the henna sits mixed for 3-10 hours, I mix ½ cup of indigo with enough water to make it the consistency of frosting before I apply it. Then I mix the henna and indigo together and apply.
#5 Try the Buddha top knot
This tip is from a pretty little hair stylist that hennaed my hair in Rishikesh, India. As you apply the henna to longer hair, start a bun on the back crown of your head. Then as you go separate your hair into lines perpendicular to your face with a long ended comb, paint your roots with henna, and wind each chunk around the bun.
#6 Lay down to rinse
If you have to stand to rinse the henna off your hair by yourself, be prepared to scrub the walls close to you and have dark old towel or two ready to dry your hair and catch any color drips. If you can lay down in water in a tub, a creek, or the ocean when it’s time to rinse the henna out, it’s much easier to relax and clean up afterwards. When I rinse henna from my hair in the tub I use earplugs for swimmers so the henna rinse water stays out of my ears.
#7 Prevent henna stains
Your white tub, sink, floor, walls, clothes, etc are all susceptible to henna stains. I mix henna in a glass bowl, wipe up any henna that gets out of the bowl or my hair immediately, and wash it all down a metal sink or scrub the sink and tub with Barkeeper’s Friend or Borax immediately after finishing. Designate a spatula for henna so you don’t have to look at a stained spatula in your kitchen. Some say avoid using metal with wet henna, others say this is not true. I just stay away from metal spoons and bowls to be safe.
Whew! Hopefully those tips will save you some time researching henna.
If henna is not your thing now, you might love it in the future when you want to try something different or your hair turns gray and you are not into it. Regardless, henna reminds us that not every moment of our lives needs to be busy. We can schedule half a day each month to be alchemists, painting ourselves as our ancient ancestors did. Periodically transforming ourselves back into goddesses, massaging our minds in a warm earthy bath.
SAINT OF TRUTH
I hate having gray hair. It doesn’t bother me a bit to see it on other people, but when I see my gray roots returning in the mirror I just want to cover it up with henna or a headband. Some women in my family started going gray as teenagers. Self acceptance is great, especially regarding things we cannot change about ourselves. I’m not even 40, but I don’t know if I’ll ever stop coloring my gray hair.
But honestly, if I didn’t have gray hair, I wouldn’t have a henna ritual. My hair would not glow coppery red in the sunlight, and I would not have this connection to ancient concepts of beauty. So I’ve made the best of it, even if it’s something about myself that I wish was different.