by Jim Berenholtz

This is not the career that my mother wanted for me. But it sure is fun. I get to wear exotic outfits while I demonstrate interspecies communication to famous people in fabulous homes. On the other hand, I also get to scrub snake urine out of my livingroom rug and buy frozen dead rats in "Gourmet Rodent" bags at the pet store when my snakes aren't up to hunting on their own. I suppose every job has its down side.

My first performance as a snakedancer was on New Year's eve of the Year of the Snake, February 5, 1989. That night was also my birthday, which I shared with my gongmistress/musician friend, Kabbalah Bach. We'd rented out a dance studio in Venice Beach, California, reknowned locale of the bizarre and offbeat, to throw a Chinese New Year/Mercury-goes-direct birthday bash with about a hundred and fifty friends. Kalpan had only been living with me for about a week at that point, but already I knew we were destined to perform together. Whenever I held him or put him around my neck, a familiar feeling of movement flowed through my body, as if I was remembering being a snakedancer in other lifetimes. With the Year of the Snake party only days away, it seemed the perfect opportunity to premier our new act. The crowd had no idea what to expect, of course. All was dark when Kabbalah began striking her huge Balinese gongs and Tibetan bowls. Then slowly the lights came up as I rose from the floor with my serpent, balancing on one leg at a time, shifting through yoga poses, making mudras with my hands and expressive gestures with my eyes.

Months later, at another performance, someone would tell me how my dance reminded them of the Dance of Shiva, and I would learn about his one hundred and eight positions, many of which were identical to the poses I was apt to take. In his dancer embodiment as Nataraj, Shiva is always depicted with cobras intertwining around his neck, representing his victory over death and the cycles of time. Surely Kalpan did not threaten me with the dangers of a venomous snake, yet I related to the same sense of surrender and transcendance of fears and limitations symbolized through the Nataraj. To dance with Kalpan we had to merge, become one. There was no worry about him constricting me. Rather, it was my job as a performer to portray total trust with an animal that for many people is a fearsome icon. Thus my dance became a vehicle for teaching about how we fear what we do not understand. My audiences were learning that snakes could be loving, gentle beings.

Jim and Soonyana in performance.
San Francisco - 2001

As word of my performance art spread, new venues appeared. For a while I had a steady gig at a West Hollywood dance and supperclub, rotating shows with cast members of Cirque de Soliel. Then came collaborations with a troupe of bellydancers and a modern dance company, which showcased at theatres all around Los Angeles. Finally an entertainment agency came forward to represent me, and I started getting gigs for megaparties at the homes of the rich and famous. Little did I know when I first took Kalpan home that he would ultimately lead me to introductions with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Olivia Newton John, Thomas Dolby, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Charles Bronson, Jim Carey, Tom Cruise and Nicolle Kidman.

Such illustrious and talented audiences, however, are not easily impressed. For those who have seen most everything, my act had to be mind-blowing. It was time to expand. And so gradually my snake family grew to include two South American red-tailed boas, four African ball pythons, and an albino girlfriend for Kalpan named Ixchel. I started lifting heavier weights so that I could handle having up to seven snakes covering me at once. More muscles on me helped the visuals too.

With that came a trend towards less and less clothing. I started getting gigs for gay circuit parties and heterosexual polyamorous tantra events. Then came the television broadcasts, from "Strange Universe" to the "Sex and Spirit Explorer Series". Meanwhile, my snakes were very busy breeding, making lots of babies. As my reptile family organically grew, word spread and people began calling to see if they could place their unwanted snakes with me. And so my pad became a sort of "Home for Wayward Snakes". Hmmmmmm. Not what I was originally planning.

Anyway, I love my slithering friends. I've started performing with other dancers who also dance with snakes. Together, as Serpentium, we're creating ensemble snakedances and bringing back an ancient tradition that once existed in many parts of the world. Where this all will ultimately lead is anyone's guess. One thing's for sure. I'm still having fun.