It's hard to predict how a guy
might become a belly dancer. Maybe even reinvent the whole
genre. Or at least expand its, uh, horizons. Belly dancing
isn't the kind of thing that floats into a guy's mind while
he's waiting for halftime to end or driving home from work or
sitting in a barber shop with a Sports Illustrated in
his hands. It probably helps if you're open to new
"I've been known to do just about anything," Mike Zimmerman
So one day the phone rings at his house and a guy Mike has
never met or even heard ofa total strangersays, "You don't
know me, but I've heard you'll do anything."
Mike asks him what he means.
The caller says, "My wife gave me a belly dancer for my 40th
birthday, and I was so damn embarrassed, I was wondering if
you'd be a belly dancer for my wife's 40th birthday."
Mike tells the guy to hang on a second and hollers upstairs to
his wife : "Do you think you could come up with some kind of
costume for a belly dancer?"
Yes, she says, she canand a career is born.
"That's how it started," Mike says.
He is 6 feet tall; he weighs 320 pounds. He's been belly
dancing for 14 years.
"I lost about 30 pounds, and I did a show last week, and a
woman said, 'What happened to you? There's only about half of
you there.' "
While mysteries might abound in the matter of 320-pound male
belly dancers, it is not a mystery at all about how the caller
14 years ago thought to ring up Mike Zimmerman. His name, as
the phrase would have it, is "out there."
A former Marine with two years in Vietnam, Mike joined VVA
about 20 years ago. He has been president of Chapter 613 in
Muskegon, Mich., for about 10 years. He also has been involved
with other veterans' organizations in Muskegon since the day
he was discharged. He is active in numerous civic
He said it is no surprise to him that he is comfortable with
veterans' groups. His military service was the logical
extension of a long family history. An uncle was on the Bataan
Death March, another at Pearl Harbor; his father was a Navy
veteran. Zimmerman says being active in veterans' affairs is
"in my blood."
"I guess I just love being around
people," he said. "I love life. When I was in Vietnam, my
whole theory was that we were there to help the people. I had
good Vietnamese friends when I was there, and I have them
He speaks frequently at local
"The first thing they all ask is, 'Did you kill anybody,' " he
said. "I tell them most veterans don't like talking about it.
It's the worst thing that can happen to you. Then I move on to
another subject. I'm not sure how to measure the interest
level of the kids. A lot of them will come up to me afterwards
and say their grandfather is a Vietnam veteran. You get the
sense that Grandpa hasn't talked much about it. At least after
hearing me, the kids will have some idea of what Grandpa did.
It might even help when the kids go home and tell Grandpa that
a Vietnam veteran came to school and gave a talk."
He is concerned about the dwindling membership in his chapter.
"We have trouble keeping members," he said. "I argue that
membership is great for
camaraderie and that one day you're going to need that
camaraderie. We used to be much more active than we are now. I
don't know why we've slowed down. Maybe we're getting older."
He is 58, active in civic and veterans affairs, president of a
VVA chapter, and a belly dancer a part-time career that might
have more to do with genes than anything. He comes from a
vaudeville family. His mother sang, danced, and performed
acrobatics; his father was a self-taught piano and guitar
player. They were veterans of the vaudeville circuit, and now
the son is news in Muskegon.
The Muskegon Chronicle once put his belly-dancing
picture on the front page. He said it was like a free $15,000
"I do girls' bachelorette parties, and they stick money in my
underwear," he said. "I can make more money on a weekend than
I do during the week at work. I averaged it out once, and it
came to about $200 an hour.''
He once asked a guy if he wanted to join him in the
belly-dancing work. He was getting too many requests for
appearances and needed help.
"He laughed and said, 'I would never do something like
that,' " Mike said. "I said, 'Yeah, I know. I only do it
because I make about 200 bucks an hour.' "
The guy asked Mike if he gave lessons.