By Joseph Robertia
From “Dancing with the Stars” to “So You Think You Can Dance?” to “America’s Best Dance Crew,” there’s no denying dancing has become a pop culture phenomenon. But how many of these television shows feature the talent dancing with live snakes, fire and 3-pound swords balancing on their heads?
“No, no fire, since the recital is in the (Soldotna High School) auditorium they said we couldn’t do live flames, but we’ll have the snakes and sword dances,” said Lisa Ferguson, referring to Urban Dance Studio’s annual recital coming up April 28.
Ferguson is an instructor of the belly-dancing class at the Kenai studio. An annual favorite act in the recital, the belly-dancing class has grown in popularity to the point where there are now two separate classes offered — beginners and advanced, the latter of which Ferguson teaches.
Four of the 14 women between the two classes are high school seniors, though, and knowing that, after graduation, the troupe will likely lose these girls as they go off to college, Ferguson said the dance group decided to send them off in style.
“We wanted to really up it this year,” she said.
There will be four separate performances by the belly-dancing troupe in this year’s recital. The beginners class will perform using Isis wings. In addition to the usual hip-swaying and other mesmerizing movements, Ferguson explained this act also features the dancers fluttering large shimmering wings in a dizzying display of coordination.
The intermediate class will perform a “Bollywood”-themed dance, which means it is primarily modeled after bright and bold Indian dancing. They will also perform a “Scimitar Dance,” which involves the performers not just balancing a 3-pound curved blade on their head, but also dancing around without it falling off.
“It’s much harder than I thought it would be, and there’s the very real concern of it falling and hitting your foot or hurting you somehow,” said Sharaf Chenault, owner of the dance studio and a student in the intermediate class.
Degree of difficulty is the point, though, according to Ferguson. An important aspect of any belly-dancing routine is isolation — restricting dance movement to one part of the body while keeping other parts perfectly motionless or moving in a different direction. Dancing while balancing a sword on one’s head is the ultimate test of this core principle.
“To get it right takes a lot of practice,” Chenault said. “I put in a lot of practice and not just in class. I’d practice at home, first by just sitting and watching TV with it on my head, then by walking, and then by doing things.”
Odd as this sounds, Chenault said that the peculiarity of this dance routine was one of the draws for her to the class.
“We have a lot of traditional dance classes here, so it’s great to have something
completely different. It’s awesome to push yourself and try new things. It makes it more interesting for everyone involved, and I think for everyone who will come to see it, too,” she said.
As if the scimitar dance weren’t enough, the final act of the belly-dancing portion of the recital will include both dance classes together and feature live snakes, the largest of which is an 8-foot-long Australian carpet python.
“I’m excited to have the snake in the finale because snakes have been part of the belly-dancing tradition for years, but I have a childhood fear of snakes, myself, so getting ready for this dance has taken a lot of meet-and-greets with the snake to get me and the other dancers comfortable,” Ferguson said.
Gretchen Pribbenow, a former student of Ferguson’s who now teaches the beginners belly-dancing class, will be swaying with the serpent.
“I’m pretty comfortable with it now, but it took awhile, especially considering it’s already bitten me,” she said.
That’s right, Pribbenow has already been bitten, but she said it wasn’t entirely the snake’s fault, since the bite came during the period they were still learning each other’s comfort levels.
“We had been dancing for about an hour, and we started doing some fast moves, and I think that’s what did it,” she said.
In nature, pythons move deliberately from branch to branch. The only sudden
movement outside the snake’s own striking at prey would come if it fell from a branch. Pribbenow said she’s not sure what the snake was thinking — if it believed it was falling or had just gotten cranky from all the handling — but she did find out the hard way what its response was. It sunk the same long, curved teeth it uses to hold onto prey into the soft flesh of Pribbenow’s shoulder.
“It was very painful, and luckily he let go rather than holding on. I didn’t throw him to the ground of anything, which is your instinct, but we did call it a day after that,” she said.
Since then, Pribbenow has made more of a concerted effort not to move too quickly with the snake, and she keeps her guard a little more up.
“I always try to keep his head where I can see it now,” she said.
Far more than the danger of biting, Pribbenow also has to contend with being careful that the constrictor doesn’t do what it does best — squeeze — while it’s around her neck. She said she had a close call with this, too, but it likely had to do with the cold-blooded creature trying to get comfy, not kill her.
“There was a day when I had to have help getting him off, but I think it was because he was getting cold, not aggressive,” she said. “It’s still a bit terrifying, though. They’re so strong and I could really feel how its whole body is muscle.”
The python is on loan to the belly dancer from Hanah Hoff, of Kenai, who acquired the snake last year. She said she is excited to see her exotic pet be in the recital, and she’ll be doing her part to keep the serpent calm for the act. Hungry snakes are more likely to bite, so she intends to feed the creature a day or so before the recital.
“He gets fed once a week, usually a rat or a chicken, so we’ll be sure to give him something to keep him friendly,” she said.
Still, Hoff’s mother, Raquel Flaaen, said she was glad she wasn’t the one dancing with the python.
“We have two kids, and he’s always getting handled by them and their friends, so he’s pretty mellow,” she said. “But he’s still a snake and snakes are unpredictable, so we’ll see what happens.”