Authored by Leyla Billman of Pin-Up Pythons
Most animal education enthusiasts get into informing the masses via traditional routes: they have a degree in herpetology, they work in education, etc. The jump from enthusiast to educator isn’t exactly a stretch. I got into snake conservation education, because I was a belly dancer.
That’s right, a belly dancer.
In fact, I spent 20 years as a professional belly dancer, ran my own dance company, and regularly gigged. I belonged to a professional troupe for a while and that is where I met my best friend and business partner, Kat (aka Kitty Mystique). Kat was a belly dancer like me, but also did burlesque with her albino Burmese Python, Jupiter, and eventually, Venus. I was hooked.
So, I spent an excessive amount of time researching snakes and learning all I could, before I got my first snake – my Ball Python, Persephone. But as any animal enthusiast will admit, you don’t REALLY learn about the animal until you own them. Also, once everyone in your circle knows you own a snake, you instantly become a magnet to all memes, news articles, and general myths, and subsequently you end up doing additional research to defend your choice in pet.
However, the one thing both Kat and I noticed was, when we performed with our snakes, we spent most of our non-dancing time posing for pictures, letting people pet the snakes, and answering questions.
In fact, we spent a considerable amount of time dispelling myths and advocating for snakes.
While I don’t dance much these days, my snakes have a cushy job advocating for their species at elementary schools, 4-H clubs, and with the neighborhood children. However, my start in education was because of an alternative education opportunity. And I don’t discount opportunities like that as not having the same impact as when I am in the classroom. My snakes have made many new friends out in public and have helped many people change their minds on snakes, in general.
Another great example was a modeling gig our snakes were commissioned for. A connection in the dance community suggested my name to a model who was inspired to shoot with a “yellow snake”. My Hypo Butterbee, Andromeda, was well-known throughout the dance community and fit the bill for what the model wanted. Not only was this the model’s first time working with snakes, but of course there were people on the set for the shoot who learned a lot about our slithery friends that day. Not to mention, the dialogue that opened-up once the model shared her pictures on Facebook.
Now, not to say there aren’t irresponsible ways to educate via entertainment methods, but there are bad apples in every bunch. Even in the traditional circles of educators, there are individuals who don’t exactly set a positive example for hobbyists.
However, by practicing what you preach and setting ethical guidelines, it is possible to make it work.
Dancing with Reptiles
Firstly, performing with snakes can be touchy. I think there is a right way and a wrong way to approach this. I, personally, always put the animal first. For example, the style of belly dance I predominantly performed was very slow and serpentine in execution. I followed my snake’s cue, everything I did was improvised, and costuming was always adjusted to benefit the animal (no sharp pokey décor or hoop earrings). In fact, with fellow snake dancers that I knew, a common pet peeve many of us had was when a dancer would perform with a fake snake. This usually involved the dancer flinging the toy around and twirling it haphazardly. Not only was it viewed as a disrespect to an aspect of the art form that many don’t understand, but it really downplayed the “living animal” element that so many of us actual snake dancers respected and put in the forefront.
Reminding your audience (and clients) that you are working with a living creature is probably the most responsible thing you can do. During more intimate settings, like haflas and coffeehouses, I am known for chatting with my audience (typically making jokes and such), but when I performed with a snake, I took the time to remind the audience that my dance partner was alive…and often in charge! During a live drumming show at a coffeehouse, I was dancing with my rescued Ball Python, Kismet. He had looped his tail around my right wrist and his upper body around my left wrist, creating a handcuff scenario. It was pretty comical and I made a joke about how he is always in charge and how Kizzy was such a diva. Everyone laughed and it gave Kismet a personality. Which, although things like “personality” in reptiles is debatable, it is essential in connecting some people to seeing snakes as being interesting and non-threatening.
Keeping it Legal with Reptiles
I also am a BIG advocate for utilizing contracts if you perform with animals. Not only does it remind your client that you are bringing a living creature into their establishment (and they are responsible for their well-being), but it also protects the performer in cases where the animal is unable to “perform” (i.e. always have a clause regarding snakes becoming ill and being unable to travel). I will build in costs for travel-heaters as well. With modelling gigs, I insist on being the handler to position snakes and I add a clause regarding jewelry and potentially harmful beauty products, such as oils.
The other issue that does come out of performing with snakes, but qualifies as an educational opportunity, is the unfortunate reality of having to mentor others out of following in your footsteps. I can honestly say I have only ever encouraged one fellow dancer to snake dance, and she was an instructor of mine and already a snake enthusiast. She understood the responsibility which comes with performing with an animal and caring for the animal. Reality is our snakes are our pets first, partners in performance/education second.
There was an instance when I had a student troupe and during a rehearsal in my home studio (where my enclosures were) one of the students excitedly asked if all troupe members were getting snakes to dance with. She was a bit dismayed when I said no. I had to explain that this was not like borrowing a dancer’s veil or sword, these were living animals and if a student wanted to get into responsible snake ownership and eventually start performing with the animal, then I would be happy to provide guidance. She told me she didn’t want THAT kind of responsibility, which is typically the case.
I also had an audience member once tell me after seeing me perform with two of my Balls, that she had a corn snake and she was certain she could perform with her snake. I did caution her that almost every snake dancer I knew only worked with boids (boas or pythons), partially because of size, but also because they tend to slither slowly around the dancer’s body and are better at grasping than colubrids. This girl insisted that her corn would be perfect. I basically told her only she knew her animal, BUT to be cautious because squirmy snakes can endure dangerous falls if the dancer doesn’t know what she is doing. To my knowledge, the girl never started performing with her snake.
While my “entertaining days” are mostly over (although, I have been contacted to provide snakes to a model I know and photographer I regularly use and trust), I feel those years afforded me a gauntlet of wisdom. I learned what questions to expect (and I got some “special” ones over the years). I especially learned about my snakes. I really know my snakes that I danced with better than the ones that I acquired just for my collection/traditional education opportunities. I spent so much time working with those animals that I can honestly say that I learned more from them than any book I ever read.
Most importantly, I learned never to shun an opportunity to let my snakes represent their species in the public eye. So, I have entered (and placed) pet costume contests with them. I have taken them out in the neighborhood when the weather is warm and the kids are everywhere (and curious). I have offered up swabbing my beloved Persephone so the neighbor girl can use snake saliva for a DNA test in her high school Microbiology class. Every chance to open someone’s eyes to the wonderful world of snakes is a welcome opportunity.