So you wanna be a snake dancer?
Snake charming in terms of belly dance is an art form that’s been wowing audiences since Jamila Salimpour decided to take a lonely snake on stage with her during her Bal Anat back in the 1960s. I have been performing with Tony, my 9 year old 8 1/2 foot long red tail boa for around 3 years.
I often get asked about snakes after performing. Their care, what they eat, how big they get, and most worrying…how they can start performing with one too. Not every belly dancer should perform with a snake and not every snake is meant to perform. Let’s go into detail about a few things you need to know about dancing with snakes. I will not go too much into detailed care for the reptiles but I will provide basic links for you to do your research with!
SNAKES CAN HURT YOU
I feel like this is obvious but I’ve seen a number of seemingly well educated adults immediately try to touch the head of my snake without warning. Depending on the snake and situation ANY snake can bite. It will hurt. You will probably bleed. The snake can even possibly hurt themselves or break a tooth. If the snake is a constrictor they might decide to hang on for a while. (Mine decided to give me a tourniquet after trying to snack on my knuckle).
As a performer, you need to be prepared for that. There is no “trained” snake, only a trained keeper who can see the signs of stress and is cool under pressure. If you are quick to panic, snakes are not for you.
SNAKES EAT CUTE THINGS
This can be a hard thing to chew on (heh) for new noodle owners. Most snakes feed on rats, rabbits, or chickens. Though generally frozen/thawed meals are best for the snake some refuse and need to be fed live animals. Depending on the snake, they eat around every week or so. Some snakes will refuse meals for no apparent reason. This will get costly quickly. Which brings me to my next point…
SNAKES ARE EXPENSIVE
Besides purchasing your snake (which can be between $50-3000), vet bills, food, and pricey large enclosures snakes tend to drain your wallet. Rats individually can cost around $5 at the pet store. Enclosures can be anywhere from $200-1000. Heating emitters will need to be replaced on occasion ($50+). Substrate needs to be changed regularly ($5-20). See what I’m getting at here? Snakes need a yearly vet check up. This is NOT to be skipped even if your snake looks healthy. Reptiles often don’t appear to be sick until it’s too late.
PREPARE TO ASK QUESTIONS AND READ…A LOT
There are SO many rules, care, advice, and specific details online about a specific snakes care. Not to mention things change over time when new things are found. Subscribe to your local reptile group, find a reptile specific store nearby, and check out blogs on care. Do this BEFORE your get a snake. Here is one of the many pages on care, though not all care works for all snakes. Some need specifics. I’d recommend looking up a care sheet depending on the kind of snake you plan on purchasing. Remember, knowledge is power!
SNAKES LIVE A LONG TIME
Depending on your snakes species their lifespan can vary. The most common lifespan is around 30 years. Let me repeat that…30 YEARS. Are you prepared for that long of a commitment?
NOT ALL SNAKES ARE EASY TO HANDLE
I love my Tony. He’s a sweetheart, but I also have Aphrodite who thinks I’m literally Medusa. This means that you need to be prepared to have a snake that’s just a pet, and not something else. Not all snakes are more tolerant than others. There really is no way to test this other than regularly handling your new friend. (And even then it can’t guarantee it!) Sit with your snake. Start dancing easily at home. Ease them into the irregular movement you’ll be doing with your snake.
THERE IS NO SNAKE THAT IS PERFECT FOR DANCING
No snake was made for performance. I prefer dancing with Red Tail Boa’s. They are not the largest snakes, but get around 9 feet. They are considered “medium” sized snakes in the herp world. I’ve seen dancers perform with ball pythons, reticulated pythons (that’s what Britney Spears danced with if your curious), green tree pythons, and corn snakes. Consider your strength when getting your first snake. If you can’t lift 30+ pounds of muscle then any larger python is not for you. Also consider your knowledge. Ball pythons and corn snakes are considered beginner snakes. They are smaller, tend to be a little more calm, and require easily accessible care. Ball pythons are most popular because they don’t usually get over 4 feet and are easy to handle. I personally have 5. If you must start with any snake, this is my best recommendation.
YOUR SNAKE IS NOT A CANE
This one gets my blood boiling. Too many times I’ve seen videos of dancers whipping their snake around their head while spinning in circles and the poor thing is trying to get away. Your snake is a living, breathing, and feeling animal. It can make it’s own decisions, and might not do what you want it to do. This is why all of my snake performances are completely improv’d. I can’t guarantee that the snake will not decide to curl up into a ball, or try to go for the lights above. Once my dear boy Tony decided that his tail need to be between my legs toward the audience creating a phallic silhouette. It was awkward, but we all laughed. You need to let your snake lead the performance. Slow down, breathe. Keep an eye on their head and adjust their body as needed. Don’t let them around your neck, though it poses no danger to you it can frighten and worry the audience. Be a good example of how you would want your dear friend to be treated.
YOUR REGULAR COSTUMING IS NOT SUITED FOR SNAKE DANCING
Sequins, and beads aren’t meant for snakes. They can tear at the snakes scales and damage them. Lines of beads are asking to be broken as your snake will coil their tail in them. This can cause the snake to panic and hold on tight, or get themselves stuck. I’d recommend string fringe, dresses, and soft fabrics. I had a beautiful costume made by Fearless Glamour for under $200, though you don’t need anything special. Your snake will steal the show anyway, so focus on your dancing.
TRAVELING IS A HASSLE
My Tony is very heavy. He also is unable to keep himself warm. To travel I purchased a large basket with a top that can be latched down. I purchased mine at Pier One. I then use a medium sized rolling cart with elastic hooks to hold his basket in place. Inside of his basket is a comfy pillow with a special reptile-safe heating pack to keep him warm. He is kept in a large pillow case so that he cannot escape and will not accidentally hurt himself. However, this tends to bring a LOT of attention. If you’re walking around people they can and will try to open the basket. The lock is your best friend. If you’re in a dressing room with others, please bring a small sign and let everyone know that there is a live animal present. I’ve been at too many variety shows where I’ve turned around to see someone has left their costume on top of his basket because they thought it was a table. Lastly, never, EVER leave your snake unattended.
BE AN ADVOCATE EVEN IF PEOPLE HATE REPTILES
I’ve been told to my face that “That will probably try to eat you in your sleep”, “That’s so disgusting” and even better “I would shoot that if he showed up in my house”. Not everyone likes snakes and that is OK. People have legitimate phobias and you need to respect that. Always have a warning before you perform so that people with extreme fears can leave the room. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t educate people. Answer their questions no matter how stupid. Show that snakes aren’t evil, slimy, poisonous (oiy), or inherently dangerous. You are probably going to be their only positive introduction to the animals in their lifetime. Make a positive impression!
YOU NEED A SENSE OF HUMOR AND PATIENCE
I can’t stress this enough. Your snake will have their own personality. You need to be able to roll with the punches. At the end of the day you’re handling a wild animal that can be unpredictable. If you don’t feel comfortable holding your snake and you’re nervous, your animal will respond to that. Keep calm, breathe, and smile.
So in short, there is a lot to think about before becoming a snake dancer. Most importantly ask yourself this question: Am I doing this to be edgy/sexy/dangerous/more hirable or do I want to do this because I love the animals?
Still have questions? Email Kat from Tacoma Belly Dance
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