Dancing during a televised awards show is stressful enough, since you’re expected to nail those moves with precision, while the cameras are focused on you – but imagine the pressure of performing with a large reptile wrapped around your body? For the record, there’s no salary bonus that could convince me to do that, but Genise Ruidiaz graciously accepted the challenge for Nicki Minaj’s anticipated “Anaconda” performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards.
The 25-year-old contortionist, who has performed at the AMAs, VMAs, and Kid’s Choice Awards with artists like Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Pitbull (and appeared in shows like “Glee” and “True Blood”) had already struck up a friendship with a 6-foot Dumeril’s boa constrictor named Rocky, before he bit her. After that first bite, she agreed to give it one more try with another snake named Archie and things went awry again. You’re a brave girl, Genise. Here’s how the story went:
Was this your first performance at the VMAs, or did you have one under your belt minus a snake bite?
My first VMAs performance was in Miami in 2005, when Diddy hosted, and I did the opening act with him. That show was the day after a huge hurricane, so there was actually a huge flood and no way for me to get to rehearsals. A friend picked me up from my house in his row boat and took me to the corner of the block where it wasn’t flooded. Then my dance teacher picked me up from and we had to do my makeup and hair as fast as I could to get to rehearsal.
You’ve got an amazing VMA track record so far. This year, was it your first time performing with an animal?
This was definitely my first time, but I thought – when are you ever going to have this experience? When are you ever going to have a snake wrapped around you, while doing some of your contortion moves? I was really hoping the snake didn’t think this was a competition to see who can bend the most. But this was a professional snake, he’s been on multiple photo shoots and video shoots, so what are the chances of anything happening? I’ll just go for it I thought – it’ll be something cool to put on my resume.
Did they tell you upfront that there would be a snake involved?
They had auditions for contortions and said, ‘Most likely you ladies will be holding a snake while you do this, do any of you have any issues?’ In my head I was thinking ‘Oh yeah, I have major issues,' but I kept my mouth shut. And after I got the call that I’d booked it, I thought ‘Now, what do I do to overcome the fear of working with this snake? What am I going to do, to not give that energy to the snake that I’m terrified of him?'
What was the first rehearsal with the snake like? Is that when the bite happened?
No, the Wednesday before the VMAs I had a full day with the snake and I was terrified. I woke up sweating. But when I met him, I overcame one of my biggest fears.
I started talking to Rocky like he was a human – ‘Hey Rocky, how are you doing?’ I was doing everything in my power to make myself feel comfortable. I felt like, if I gave off the energy of me being afraid then he’s going to feel that energy and something bad is going to happen. I asked the trainers every question possible I could think of, to educate myself about snakes.
So how did it feel the first time the snake was wrapped around you?
The feeling of having this creature – this reptile that is all muscle -- work his way around my body was insane. I was so happy I did it, it was an incredible feeling. I felt so comfortable. I was even thanking the creative director for letting me do this, and thinking I might actually want buy my own snake.
I didn’t have the snake on the next day of rehearsal so I kind of missed Rocky actually, and I couldn’t wait to see him again.
On Friday, the day that it happened, I was practicing the tricks with another contortionist and coming up with an alternate poses, and the snake was fine. We did it about four times before the incident happened and he was gripping me the way he was supposed to, but I felt like he was getting tired and didn’t want to hold on much.
The trainers told me the only reason a snake would attack, is if they felt like they were at harm, so I tried to readjust to make sure that he felt safe on me. But right when I did one trick, I guess he must’ve felt I wasn’t holding onto him, so he went ahead and took a nice little bite out of my left arm.
That’s pretty terrifying. How did you react?
Thankfully, when it happened I didn’t try to take the snake off me and scream and throw my arms up in the arm. I stood still. I went into complete shock. I was trying to focus on my breathing, instead of getting the snake off, because he was still wrapped around me. I thought that if I controlled my breathing and fear of what just happened he would calm down and let go of me, but he didn’t. He was holding onto my arm for dear life. He definitely had his mouth around my arm for a good 45 seconds, but to me it felt like an hour.
What does a snake bite actually feel like?
To be honest, it really didn’t hurt at all. It literally felt like getting a shot, but imagine 40 needles sticking you at once and then leaving.
I assume that you motioned for help – while remaining ridiculously calm?
When I felt his teeth around my arm, I was shocked for about two seconds, then looked to a trainer and [kept repeating], “He’s biting me, he’s biting me, he’s biting me.” Then I kept my eyes on the other contortionist, because I think if I looked at the snake’s mouth on my arm, I would’ve reacted differently. Then the trainer went ahead and squeezed his jaw to unhook him off my arm and take him off.
Was Nicki nearby when the bite happened?
They sat me down on one of the props and one of the first people I saw was Nicki Minaj in front of me, making sure that I was okay. And that was the one thing that I really appreciated because some people can’t handle blood or an incident like that – especially when it’s their big performance – so the fact that she was one of the first people that I saw, I was really thankful.
Were you treated immediately afterwards?
Right after the incident I was put into an ambulance. They gave me a tetanus shot, an antibiotic in case of infection and an x-ray just in case any of the snake’s teeth were left in my arm, then I was released after about two hrs. I started taking my medication right away and thankfully we didn’t have rehearsal the following day, so I had the entire day to rest.
Were you hesitant about going back to work with another snake?
When I was in the hospital I got a text from the creative director asking if I was still down to do the job with no snake – which I was. Then I got a phone call, saying that Nicki didn’t want to replace me (I was worried they would for my safety), but she still wanted the snake. When that happened, I cried. I’d just overcome one of my biggest fears and it actually happened, so I told them I needed some time to think about it. I called my mom and she said, ‘you’re a professional dancer, and you committed to something, you have to be brave, you have to do this.”
Yikes. What was rehearsal like with the second snake?
The new snake’s name was Archie, and they brought back Rocky as well. I was going back and forth, wondering if I should do it with the snake that already knows what’s going on, or if I had enough time to work with a new snake. The trainers advised feeling it out with the new snake, also for legal reasons.
Archie was smaller and a hair thinner than Rocky. I went through the same process with him, and even spoke to Rocky, telling him, “Rocky, we’re still cool, don’t worry about it, it happens, you were tired,” trying to get this fear out that was 10 times worse than the first time. I told the trainer that I just needed to know where his face was at all times – especially if he comes near my face or neck -- and literally 30 seconds into the snake being on me, he went ahead and bit the trainer standing next to me.
He was still on my body when he bit her. After that happened, they took him off me faster than I can even remember. At this point, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, it’s the second time that it’s happened.’ The Viacom safety guy hit up the executive producers to let them know what happened and they finally said no to the snake.
You must’ve been incredibly relieved.
I think the performance would’ve been a major hit if the snake was in there, but at the end of the day I’m just glad that they were thinking more about my safety.
Is it safe to say that you won’t be working with snakes again?
I would definitely say that I overcame a huge fear and maybe [I wouldn’t] work with a snake in the near future, but I see myself working with a snake again. I don’t see why not.
Are you and Rocky still cool?
I would work with Rocky again – he was awesome to work with. He adjusted to my body when I needed to move him from a position that I didn’t want him to be in, he easily went to where he had to go. You can’t train a reptile fully. There’s only so much that you can do when it comes to working with any kind of animal, so I was glad that I have the opportunity to work with such a professional animal. He’s 15 years in and he’s never bitten anyone.
Next up, Genise is heading to LA Vegas to perform in a show at Encore at the Wynn resort.