Middle Eastern Dance
Below you will find information on dancing with snakes in Belly Dance.

Snakes are a powerfully evocative animal and can add a great deal of dramatic tension to a performance.  Snakes are however not a traditional part of bellydance.  Snakes have been used in performance and ritual for centuries though.  In many ancient cultures snakes were worshipped and seen as symbols of wisdom, health, immortality, fertility, sensuality, sexuality, renewal, and rebirth.  In the Abrahamic traditions they are often seen in relation to death, illness, disease, danger, and sin.  Both sets of imagery are still culturally ingrained in people around the world.  Snakes hold a certain mystery around them.  They create both a sense of fear and enchantment within the human psyche.  Religious practitioners and entertainers alike have been harnessing this for centuries.

In ancient Egypt snakes, especially the cobra were worshipped both in their positive and negative associations.  The goddess Renenutet was shown as a snake or a woman with a snakes body and the snake was also associated with Isis and her wisdom.  Similar associations between snakes and the divine can be seen in Mesopotamia in the worship of Ishtar or Tanit.  Snake worship was also common in Crete and Minoa and were part of Dionysian/Bacchanal cult worship.  Worshippers of Dionysus/Bacchus were known to carry and dance with snakes as part of their ritual observances.  In India there are still cults of snake worshippers.

Snake dances in most historical records and traditional usage have generally been dances which mimic the movements of a snake which brings to mind movements from the Raqs Sharqi repertoire of "Snake Arms" and "Undulations."  In India such mimetic dances do indeed feature some of these same movements although the arms become the main tool for evocative imagery mimicking the movements of the snake often using the hand to to represent a snakes head but, the dancer generally does not become the snake themself.  Modern bellydancers often use their whole body in a sinuous, undulating way to create the imagery of themselves being the snake or being snake-like.  The other type of snake dance is one in which the snake itself does the dancing.  This is commonly referred to as snake charming and goes back to ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian magicians and Indian fakirs.  The practice is still commonly seen for it's entertainment value and is a common street performance in India.

Although there is occasional imagery of snake handling in Orientalist imagery there has been no documentation or real representation of snake dances in the Middle East.  Snakes as a prop in bellydance didn't take off until the 1960s.  It was through Jamila Salimpours troupe Bal Anat, that snake dancing first came into being as a Bellydance genre.  Her format which grew out of an attempt to create organization of chaos at a Renaissance Fair was modeled after circus formats.  She tried to blend various Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern Influenced acts with dances.  One of the circus oriented acts involved a snake which after the magic performance through which he was "produced" he was stuffed into a sack until the shows were over.  Feeling sorry for the snake and fearing harm would come to it Jamila ended up holding the snake after the circus act and eventually ended up dancing with it since nobody else wanted to hold it.  Her style sparked the initial waves of both tribal style and snake dances.

The most important thing to remember when dancing with a snake is that they are not simply a prop like anything else you dance with.  They are living breathing beings with a mind and will of their own.  They should be thought of as a partner or at least an assistant.  They require love, care, and patience as well as "training" in order to perform.  You may have one idea of what you would like the snake to do but most of the time your snake will probably have another idea.  You cannot just place the snake and expect for example that it will slither up and around your torso or along your arm.  More often than not, they will curl around one area and stay put while sticking their head out and observing what's going on and flicking their tongue.  Sometimes your lucky and your snake will actually dance with you moving around in at least an interesting and complementary way but you can't exactly count on it.  Snakes have their own temperaments and while they may dance with you one day they might be very adamantly opposed to it another day.

Snakes can't exactly be trained per sea but, they do need to be accustomed to handling.  If your snake is brand new (to you anyway) and has not been handled much it will most likely not be comfortable being handled on stage immediately.  It's best to introduce your snake to being handled over a period of time before you even start dancing with it.  Once you've accustomed your snake to being handled, start handling it while dancing.  Snakes respond to vibrations (their actually very sensitive to them) so you need to introduce them to your music too.  The vibration frequency of some songs might be more or less pleasing or disturbing to them.  Live music will definitely be different than recorded music as well.  You also need to make sure that you remain calm during your practice and performance with a snake.  They can feel the vibration of your pulse and will respond to a quick pulse by tensing up.  That's their natural reaction to potential danger.  If you notice your snake tensing make sure you relax!  You can also begin massaging their inner coils to help them relax.  When your ready try introducing them to small groups at a time to make sure they become accustomed to people as well.  When you and your snake are comfortable with each other and your snake has been accustomed to dancing, music, handling, and crowds then your ready to perform in public.  Try to replicate your stage settings at home as much as possible so you can gauge how they will react in real life situations.  Snakes will always respond to their natural reptilian instincts which are different than our mammalian ones so you should do your best to understand how your snake thinks.

When choosing a snake for dance the best types are usually boa constrictors or pythons.  Corn snakes are nice for their variety in color, adaptability to temperature, and over generally friendly personalities but are small and not as impressive or visible to an audience.  Even if the snake is a boa, python, or even corn snake there is always the possibility that particular snake will not want to be a performance snake and they will find ways to let you know they are just not comfortable with that.  Keep in mind that the snake is more than just a prop, it's a pet.  You need to make sure you have an appropriate place for it to stay, appropriate foods, water, it needs exercise, light, dark, etc... it has needs just like any other creature so make sure you respect that and can afford to care for it properly.

When dancing with a snake pretty much any movement can be used.  You really only need to be conscious of where the snake is.  For example you don't want to swing your arm so as to smack it in the head.  You also should be aware of where the snake is going for example if it is wrapping itself around your neck you may want to readjust or reposition it.  You can try getting it in general areas you want it to be but it may very well move from there so let it do what it wants within reason and work with it.  If you want your snake to be more active you should make sure you perform with them before feeding.  This also helps lessen the chance they will urinate or defecate while performing. 

You can even use other props while dancing with snakes.  I would avoid zills or tambourines since they create vibration patterns which your snake may not like.  If you do use zills try to be aware of how your snake is reacting to it.  A Veil could be used, a sword, a cane, etc... I don't know if I would be willing to do fire with a snake at the same time though since they can both be unpredictable.  Dances tend to be slower in pace and feature lots of "snaky" movements such as figure eights, undulations, snake arms, and hip rolls.  Some dancers like to use themes which play with our underlying feelings about snakes playing up either the sensual fertility imagery or the darker fear and sin imagery.  Others just use snake dancing to show off their own snakeiness.  Whatever you do remember to respect your snake as your partner.
Maria of Gimme Shimmy in central Florida with her snake.  Photo by Bob Garas.
An Almeh Performing The Sword Dance