Boy was this a fun one to research! I had asked dancers before about this, to which several varying answers or an “I don’t know” were the common result. So finally I decided it was time to find out abou the origins of Belly Dancing with Snakes and what this was all about. After reviewing several sources, it became apparent that it began with none other than Jamilah Salimpour.
“In 1969 I accidentally used Snakes”
The use of snakes in belly dance is not authentic to the Middle East nor is there any evidence prior to 1969 that it was ever used by belly dancers traditionally in their shows. The use of the snake dance frankly is nothing more than another orientalized idea, and used merely to evoke audience reaction.
Historically there have been many religious practices involving snakes but as far as the middle east goes and belly dancing, there is no connect what so ever until Jamilah “accidentally used them” as she states in her article “From Many Tribes-Origins of Bal Anat” article.
Jamilah had worked with Ringling Brothers for a time, and during the period where she formed her troupe Bal Anat in California and was performing at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire there a funny thing happened…one day Jamilah watched as the magician performing at the faire used a two-headed snake as part of his act. What caught her eye initially was the poor manner in which he was treating the snake, so she asked him if she could have the animal as she probably felt she could give the snake a better life.
As she wrote in her article, when the magician handed the snake over she did simply what anyone else would and stared back at it. This is where the idea of incorporating a snake dance into her variety act was first born. Belly dancing on water glasses with the snake, and even singing with the snake were common acts to help add some variety and flair to the show.