Make the snake dance or dance like the snake: That is Snake Dance. Both are awesome. There are two categories of Snake Dances. One is ‘Imitative’ and the other one is ‘Real’.
Imitative Snake Dance is a human dance format. Dancing like a snake performed by trained ballet dancers is the essence of that format. It generates awe and wonder. Gymnast Irena Kazakova of Russia was a world famous snake dancer whose performance remains incomparable. Her swirls, twists and bends of the body on theater stages even surpassed the twisted embrace of snake-mates, standing on the tips of their tails and hooting shrieks.
Sweeping circular movement forms the gymnastic style of snake dance. Snake dances are performed in tune with rhythmic music. The dancer imitates the uncoiling, writhing and swaying of wild snakes. Apart from being an intricate dance form, it is believed that “snake dance has certain therapeutic benefits because it expresses a gamut of emotions from anger to joy that release toxins from the body.” Whatever be the truth, across the world, snake dances as theatre entertainment, attract the interest and curiosity of the audiences.
A close examination reveals that Snake Dance performed by human beings has its origin in snake worship. Snake worship is one of the oldest rituals offered by faithful believers in almost all the ancient cultures. Even today, the snake worship is fairly common in India, Indonesia, Cambodia and among the nomadic tribes in Africa and Australia. The snake worship by the believers in India is unique and it forms a part of their day to day divine rituals.
There are different versions as how snake worship and snake dance has flourished in India. One view is that snakes primarily represent death, rebirth and mortality. Symbolizing death, snakes cast off their skin after certain period of growth. And then, it symbolically takes rebirth with new look and fresh skins.
Another version of snake worship is based on fear of survival. Snakes as poisonous reptiles, hiding and attacking animals and humans, were dreaded the most. Just like worship and prayers originated in human mind out of fear, snake worship also became a religious custom among the people to safeguard their lives.
There are hundreds of thousands of temples and shrines across the villages, towns and cities in India where the installed deities are snake sculptures (naga prathishta) of different kinds. The believers consider these idols as entities of omnipotent supernatural powers. The devotees express their faith and sublime devotion by offering prayers with flowers and garlands. Before the sculptures of the serpent god, they dance and crawl around, chanting sthotra.
Real Snake Dance is entirely different: Some nomadic communities from mountainous forest areas capture snakes from their hideouts in the forests and underground holes. The captured snakes are then taken in baskets made of bamboo strips. They bring the baskets, perform rituals and let the snakes free before the serpent god. The onlooker-devotees take care of the snakes to prevent them from escaping. After the rituals are over the snakes are captured, packed and taken back by the nomadic talents who are the famous Snake Charmers of India.
Theater snake dance performed by talented danseuses, is awesome for all. The format of such dance is imitation of the movement of serpents. Snake Charmers in India train the captured snakes and make them dance in tune with the music of their flutes. This is the real snake dance. The snake charmer, with flute on his mouth, moves his head in different directions while the trained snake starts dancing in line with the head-movement of the snake charmer and his flute music.
It is well-known that snakes have no ears and no auditory mechanism in its brain. Snakes cannot therefore hear any sound. How then the snake hears the flute music and dances according to the tunes? It is really a complex phenomenon. The dance of the snake purportedly in tune with the instrument music of the Snake Charmer is, in fact, an illusory perception of the viewers.
What is happening in real snake dance is the working of a conditioned reflex of certain nerve connections formed in consonance with the simultaneous excitation of the motor centre and the visual centre in the snake-brain: The temporary nerve connection is formed by repetitive movement of the snake charmer’s instrument together with the movement of his hands and head simultaneously by pushing and pulling on the head of the snake to different directions. Repetition of this process for several times creates a conditioned nerve connection in the snake’s brain in line with the movements of the snake charmer and his instrument. The conditioned temporary nerve connection works as a reflex and the snake then starts moving to the directions indicated by the snake charmer. And the viewers and the audience take it as if the snake was dancing in tune with the snake charmer’s flute music.
That is the story of Real Snake Dancing: Whatever be the case the Snake Charmer obviously might be ignorant about the scientific principle behind the above training program. ‘Real Snake Dance’ can be compared with circus tents where different animals perform different kinds of gymnastics on the stage.