The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

January/February 2004

One Belly-Dancing Marine: VVA's Mike Zimmerman


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 experiences.

"I've been known to do just about anything," Mike Zimmerman says.

So one day the phone rings at his house and a guy Mike has never met or even heard ofa total strangersays, "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 canand 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 organizations.

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 here."

He speaks frequently at local schools.

"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 ad.

"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.


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