IN SOME circles, Indian dances have a bad name.

There are pow-wows, mostly in the Great Plains states, that are like road shows, with the Indians in dyed synthetic feathers from Woolworth's. And there is an older prejudice, expressed by a geezer I met years ago en route to San Ildefonso Pueblo and my first Indian dance, who asked, "Why d'ya wanna see a bunch of wagon-burners stomp around?"

The Hopi Snake Dance isn't like that. There is stomping, you bet, but the sound seems to coil itself inside your intestinal cavity. And there are feathers--real ones from eagles. And of course there are the snakes, four to five dozen live ones, which the dancers carry in their mouths. This is a respectful way to handle a creature if you believe, as the Hopis do, that he is your brother. Apparently, the whip snakes, bull snakes and rattlers believe it, too. They don't bite.

The Hopi pueblos occupy three pinched mesas in northeast Arizona's Painted Desert. Few tracts of American real estate are more inhospitable. It's been a fabled destination since cowboys rode in on horseback, ethnologists entrained from Chicago and John Sloan and other Santa Fe artists joined one of Fred Harvey's Indian Detours. But many, it seems, have driven the 119 miles on Route 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, never leaving their cars, wondering what it was they were supposed to see.

Hopis seeking to protect their traditions from outside incursions are considered the most aloof of all Pueblo Indians. There is no sign advertising Walpi--the 700-year-old cliff dwelling on the tip of First Mesa--as a living diorama. A sign one village did erect in recent years forbade whites to enter, because of "your failure to obey the laws of our tribe as well as the laws of your own."

The one concession to tourists is the official Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa. It includes a 30-room motel (the only one in 70 miles), a cafe, a small museum and craft shops. Though well intended, the center is a faceless cinder-block structure distant from the ancient villages. The interpretive exhibits are routine. More varied and better examples of sought-after Hopi pottery and distinctive overlay-style silver jewelry could be had in Scottsdale or New York.

So there's a paradox in visiting Hopi country: Arrive footloose and inconspicuous, and you'll often find your curiosity deflected. Come, however, on an "official" visiting day, when public dances are held before a midway-size crowd, and you'll get a heady, unadulterated dose of Indian lifeblood.

I joined a caravan of Navaho pickup trucks and the rental cars of out-of-staters last August, winding up Second Mesa toward the village of Shongopavi. That's where the dance is held in even years; in odd years it's in Mishongnovi. Things get under way in late afternoon. But to secure a vantage point, everyone comes hours ahead.

On foot, the crowd presses toward the narrow, rectangular dance plaza at the heart of the pueblo. The eye of the visitor unused to traditional pueblos, where living conditions are claustrophobic and communal, fastens on the litter and the compost heap of animal bones in a collapsed dwelling.

Padded with Pendleton blankets and colorful shawls, the plaza seats are reserved for village residents. All others climb rickety ladders to compete for standing room on the flat rooftops of surrounding apartments. Beneath the broiling sun, the famous and interminable waiting begins.

There is nothing quite like waiting for a Hopi dance, which everyone has told you will begin at 4, but of course will not, to appreciate something of the patient, repetitious, Oriental rhythms of Hopi existence. These 13th-century mesa-top redoubts were settled by refugees during the great exodus from the prehistoric Anasazi city-states of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. It is an arid land where survival is precarious. In fields that are no more than sand boxes, Hopis plant corn a foot and a half deep so roots will reach the desert acquifer. The object of the complex year-round cycle of Hopi ceremonies is poetically simple: They keep the sun on its course. They make the corn grow and the melons ripen. They ensure harmony and fecundity in the universe.

Most of all, they bring rain.

The origins of the Snake Dance may lie in Mesoamerica and the Toltec deification of a "plumed serpent." In any case, it predates the Katchina cult, the belief among most Pueblos in a pantheon of supernatural beings who are impersonated by masked dancers. For six months each year, the Hopi Katchinas dwell among men. But by August, they've returned to their mythic home in the San Francisco Mountains.

I can just see this 12,000-foot range silhouetted 70 miles away on the western horizon. On other horizons are solitary peaks and gargoyle-shaped buttes. It is an eerie, oceanic landscape, shimmering in the heat, a nearly featureless plain suspended beneath a few slowly moving clouds.

On the rooftop, I am crowded by a perspiring, edgy, malodorous mob. There are the usual mumbled complaints of turquoise-laden Indians that if whites can't behave--they mean yield their places--next year's dance will have to be closed. And there is a sizeable hippy tribe, the men shirtless and the women in Guatemalan blouses and owl feathers entwined in their hair.

For weeks the motel has been fully booked. The registry shows guests from Holland and Germany. Behind me is a young Parisian homme d'affairs, with his wife and two bored children. He doesn't know a detail about what he's come to see, but he'd heard it was something special, and already, in the pitiless heat, his sang-froid is being demolished. "This is America?" he says in utter amazement.

Suddenly the first dancers appear, men of the antelope clan, who are draped in fox pelts and carry rattles made from the white testicle skin of the antelope. They always assist in the Snake Dance. Solemnly they circle the plaza four times and line up at one end. Then, nearly 50 in number, from old men to 10-year-old boys initiated that morning, the gruesomely attired snake priests make their debut.

I think I love the Snake Dance because of its refusal to be catalogued by the camera. No photographs have been allowed since the early 1900s, a policy taken seriously: Tribal police will yank out film, and two years ago the dance was closed because of previous infractions. In an age when four-color magazine spreads of the most exotic peoples litter your coffee table, the only way to experience the Snake Dance is as an eyewitness.

The snake men's faces and bodies are blackened with soot. Their chins are whitened with clay in an effect that is primitive and chilling. They wear turtle-shell rattles below the knee and kilts painted with bold, zig-zagged serpents, also symbolizing lightning bolts. There is an opulence and fastidiousness in their costuming that contrasts with the tawdriness of the village, what non-Hopis conventionally see as squalor.

The men and boys circle the plaza, each stomping on a sounding board that covers a shallow hole. This is a symbolic sipapu, or earth's navel, the place from which Pueblos believe their ancestors entered the world. The snake-clan members trace their mythic lineage from Tiyo, the snake youth, who emerged from the underworld to marry a beautiful snake maiden. The priests' stomping is meant to reverberate through subterranean chambers, summoning up "the creative life force to the underground streams, to the roots of the corn, to the feet, the loins of man."

Breaking into groups, the dancers approach a cottonwood bower that conceals the snakes. One man reaches in, clenches a serpent unhesitatingly in his teeth and sets off, followed by a "hugger," who strokes the snake with an eagle-feathered wand. When the pair has danced around the plaza, the snake is dropped. There's no question that it could have been drugged. Immediately, it coils to strike or slithers quickly away. About a dozen carriers repeatedly go to the bower, until the entire plaza is a writhing, undulating chaos of snakes and snake-men. No one shows fear. One boy-priest dangles a rattler that trails passively in the dust.

Meanwhile, the antelope men intone their chant. It is low and inhuman, not really a song but a growl, one of the strangest choruses ever heard. It is a Stone Age ritual as primordial as reptilian life itself.

There is nothing quaint about the Snake Dance. It is not conceived as entertainment. It is a prayer in dramatic form, and to ensure that it's answered, each detail, year in and year out, is scrupulously correct. The dance is the last act in a 16-day ceremony that includes fasting and secret kiva rites. On four successive days, the men hunted snakes in the desert. There were ritual long-distance races before sunrise, with the winners receiving jars of water to empty in their fields.

Now, the snakes are herded together, and women advance from the sidelines to sprinkle them with corn meal. Unceremoniously, runners gather the reptiles by armfuls. They head down the mesa in each of the four direcions, and in the desert set free their spiritual brothers. The snakes are on their way underground, to the core of the Hopi universe, to intercede with the rain gods.

The entire drama has lasted little more than an hour. For an interlude, I forgot the jostling crowd, my parched tongue, my sore feet that once again are feet of clay. I shuffle along in the mass exit to the parking lot and recover the county-fair atmosphere of the day.

At the base of the mesa, I pull out of heavy traffic and stop to add water to my radiator. It is later, after dark, as I speed east on the open road, that I recognize a familiar perfume. It is the sweet scent of wet sage, overtaking me from the direction of the Hopi mesas, being pushed across the desert just ahead of the thunderstorm.