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Gilded Serpent presents...
Serpentessa – Do not try this at home….
DVD review of "Belly Dance with Snakes: Embody Your Inner Serpent"
Review by Surreyya

I feel strongly that snake dancing should be taught with supervision, in person, for the safety of all, mostly the animal. I would say this to anyone making or considering making a video instructing on the art of performing with animals.  Reptiles are wild animals.  As domesticated as a pet lover may try to make one, they cannot be trained. That said, snakes are fascinating creatures, mysterious and intriguing.  One can easily beguile in their beauty.  To connect and share time with a snake can oft make for an otherworldly experience – for you and for your audience if enough time, care, research, practice and respect are employed to your dance practice and performance.

There are things in this video I can get behind and things I can’t.  A blessing and a curse of this video is that there is so much information that it is difficult to navigate through it all. 

That said, to provide this much possibility in a world of no guarantees, meaning, no guarantees you won’t get hurt, and no guarantees your animal will not get hurt, is leaving a lot to chance. It is difficult to cover it all, so I’ve grouped my feedback into categories.

Production Quality:  
Overall, the packaging and presentation of materials were nicely designed and presented; however, it took several viewings and arguments with my remote control to navigate though the menu.  There is really way too much on this video.  I would also have left the performance section for later in the video (it is at the beginning of the table of contents) as it is easy to let your particular dance style set the tone for the whole video, as it unfortunately did with my viewing.  I think it seems to work better to view performance secondarily, as in to see how the instructor utilizes the instructional parts in a performance setting. Serpentessa does spend a considerable amount of time at the video introduction highlighting many concerns I initially had with regard to the respect and handling of snakes.

Unfortunately, I, and most others usually bypass the prologue to get to the instruction – we are a short attention span society now. The average viewer would likely miss some important suggestions. She also has a healthy disclaimer.

There is good information inside, but you have to find it. There are tips on handing and dancing with snakes, along with several postures and progressions that allow for ease of transition  - but there are so many other performances, options and ideas that it is difficult to get this information without a couple of viewings. For an experienced snake owner considering dance, there may be some nuggets of wealth inside. I can truly say I came away with some added insight.

However, I would not recommend this video to beginners, or those newly considering snakes as a pet.  There is not enough newbie care and handling instruction, and safety experts may argue there are some risky maneuvers contained within.

On a positive, the producer here is very engaged and involved in the love and care of snakes and was moved and motivated by the positive influence and experiences and health benefits achieved through dance and her connections with them. I have no doubt that Serpentessa loves and cares with the utmost respect for her animals. 

 There are several positions in this video for snake dancing that I wouldn’t recommend unless you have been snake dancing for some time, and some I would avoid entirely regardless of your experience level. For instance:

1. “Crown Position” with the snake wrapped around the head – snakes love hair. They also love to wrap up in it and unless your hair has good slip, you are going to get a mess of snake tangled in your hair. Snake scales can quickly become Velcro in your perfectly coiffed do. You stress out, snake stresses out, and it makes for icky possibilities. If you are on stage and this happens, the mystery is broken and you look like an amateur with a snake caught in your hair. Your audience isn’t going to sympathize and they won’t forgive you either. Serpentessa included such a situation in the blooper section in her video and I was stressed out biting my nails reliving past experiences, and equally impressed with her handling of the situation - only someone at her level of handling and knowledge of snakes could recover from such a situation. The only snake I would maybe trust in this type of position would be a Ball Python, but they are too tiny and too unwilling to do much else aren't much to impress a crowd. Most good performance size snakes should be more than 5 feet long just for presentation - a larger snake would require a Red Tail Boa or Burmese Python, and I would avoid placing them in this position at all – too much of a risk with a snake that large or strong.

2. “Floor Position” as suggested with the snake unless you have worked with them for many years, and even then I may question it. Any time you inhibit your limbs (i.e. your legs) you compromise your ability to move, act, proact, react, and your situation becomes more unpredictable and risky. Also, your vision is limited - you may not realize you are beating the crap out of your snake when you pop, shimmy and lock.  I have seen this live, a dancer having no idea she is beating her snakes head on the floor because she couldn’t see it. Serpentessa does make a point to discuss handling snakes while in this position is an advanced movement that takes a number of years to cultivate and practice. I don’t agree with placing a snake on the floor regardless of its temperament or holding its tail while its head etc, is on the floor. It looks bad and can give an impression of “dirtiness” to the animal as well as creates a safety risk to it, you and your audience. It just isn’t a good idea - they don’t make hermes sandals for boas.

Overall safety advice was lacking from this video - even though some cautionary statements were made. All in all, there are not enough of the real possibilities presented nor how to deal with them. Serpentessa's snakes are used to working with her and they have been selected for different scenes, instructions and performances based on their individual temperaments…but what about you and your Mr. or Ms. Boa?  

The particular style of performance on this DVD is not my cup of tea, nor is the music. There is a lot of contradiction with regard to statements made by Serpentessa, (a self-declared “Snake Priestess”) about snakes not being used as ritualistic props, however, ritualistic dances are being performed, and snakes are in the dances. The “Invoking the Goddess Dance” I was so entranced by the "big breasts with massive aeriolas" costume donned by Serpentessa that I didn’t really pay much attention to the snakes. In the “Snake Goddess Blessingway Dance” there is a very pregnant Sera snake dancing while Serpentessa and Jehan appear to be looking longingly at each other. While the end of the dance seemed very sweet and loving with respect to a mom to be, the beginning disturbed me. This has nothing to do with a pregnant dancer, which can be quite inspiring and beautiful to watch. Intended or not, there are overtly sexual undertones conveyed throughout the performances on this video.

CRITIC's NOTE: As someone who has done her share of walking on the wild side, even in my liberal-Californian-bleeding-heart-non-judgmental mind - I interpret the sexual innuendo in these performances as deliberate shock value and find some of the choreography and imagery downright tacky and so "out there" I can't connect to it.

Even after watching the video 5 or more times to just to make sure, it was still the same button pushing barely fusion hippie dancing wrapped in earth mother goddess paper. This is not at all how I think of snake dancing.

A snake is a powerful creature and symbol of many things and often viewed in a phallic way. Writhing around on a floor with a snake atop you can conjure up the strangest sexual baggage in people – the phallic suggestions are endless.  A performance suggestion to other snake dancers - I would take great care not allowing any end of a snake to position itself in between or around your legs and/or pubic region and that also happens from time to time in this video. 

Most dancers can accept a certain amount of goddess interpretation, and creative thinking as it has its way into performance.

All of us do this dance for a different reason, but most of us have our own personal radar, that goes off when the escapism gets to be a bit much. At some point, even a goddess still has to pull up or drive through and get cash out of the ATM.

The “goddess gage” feels a little broken here, and it makes it difficult for me to connect with the performance material as presented on this DVD.  The performance is too neo-ritualistic and the music very new age.  While I like Jehan’s music, I’ve already heard it in other videos, and with a lack of costuming to counter balance the lack of ethnic flavor in the music, the mystery or enchantment is totally lost for me. 

While everyone has different reasons for making a video, I am hoping one of the top reasons for this one was not to turn a profit or break even.  Though we may feel our world is big in the dance community or even pet lovers community, there just wouldn’t be enough consumers for this type of video to make any money.  Also, I wouldn't believe in the power of a disclaimer vs. lawsuit.  Human phobias of snakes are centuries old and I have yet to see the mass media portray them in a positive way.  This video really opens up a lot of risky possibilities.  

There is a lot to see and write about in this video, and it is obvious many hours of planning and effort went into its creation. Snake dancing is so subjective and open to many different interpretations good and bad.

Serpentessa has a lot of experience and knowledge of snakes, and it appears was so moved by those experiences that she decided to share them with others.  I think the video has good intentions, but this type of medium doesn't translate the way a workshop or private lesson would. 

I have a lot of respect for Serpentessa’s desire to share her life changing experience with dance and snakes, and admiration with regard to her personal care and love for her animals. Snake dancing is such a rewarding and special experience – I truly hope her video only makes its way in to the most caring and responsible of hands – to which I say proceed with caution.

What you might consider about snakes if you are buying this video or considering them as a dance partner:

  • You can’t train snakes – they train you.
  • They poop and pee just like a cat or dog, and have minds of their own. They also don’t “sit” or “stay”.
  • Owning and caring for snakes are a commitment - they are delicate and need special care and supervision and constant handling so they accept you – many people don’t realize what they are getting into. Handling your friends snake, or playing with one for 5 minutes at a pet store is much different than taking it home.
  • You could be a disservice to your snake. There are more exotic snakes than homes that can care for them.
  • Snakes are not an accessory – they are a delicate and sensitive creature and should be respected as such. You can’t get mad at them for being what they are. You may have a gig booked but they don’t care. If they don’t want to go, well, too bad.
  • Snakes are already controversial in the dance community. You may feed that fire.  You are also creating a perception about you, other snake dancers and also snake-less dancers by what your dance portrays or the message in it.  That includes costuming, posturing, and professionalism.  Your actions can actually speak louder than many and have more severe repercussions than the average dancer – careful!
  • Snakes eat cute fuzzy creatures. There is no vegan alternative (yes I’ve been asked). Many snakes won’t eat the frozen/thawed food variety, and for the snake’s safety, you may have to help stun or kill a cute fuzzy creature so they don’t starve and die or get hurt trying to eat (mouse, rat, rabbit). This is an unfortunate truth.
  • If you are afraid of being bit you shouldn’t consider snakes. Getting bit will not be the snake’s fault - it will be because you made an error or did something stupid. Humans are stupid. We make lots of mistakes. You have to be able to accept that, mend your ego and move on, recover and continue to be willing to work with the snake. Most people will adopt out the animal at that point instead of trying to work through it.  Getting bit can be a huge psychological blow and can freak you out for days and weeks.  You have to be able to push through that fear and keep going.  Granted, a snake bite is really not that big a deal – a scratch from my cat is far worse, but the event in itself can be shocking.  Anyone who tries to skirt this very real factor is not being honest with themselves, or others.  On the other hand, most boa constrictors are gentle by nature, and the above sentiments are not to scare pet lovers, only to make the point that inevitably you will mess up somehow and you need to be a grown up and deal with it as a professional.
Don’t get drunk and handle a snake, don’t wear heavy perfume, don’t get hopped up on caffeine, don’t approach your snake after a stressful day, don’t wear fresh fake tanner or heavily scented lotions and handle snakes, don’t’ move quickly or make sudden gestures.  This animal acts and reacts on senses – make sure yours are in check before you play.

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