Anne Ver­mey­den’s love for belly danc­ing runs deep – not just as an art­form but for its ben­e­fits to both her phys­i­cal and men­tal health


Anne Ver­mey­den’s love of belly danc­ing runs so deep she de­fended her PhD the­sis on the sub­ject

Anne Ver­mey­den suc­cess­fully de­fended her PhD the­sis at Univer­sity of Guelph on the sub­ject of belly dance

The im­age is stun­ning. A bil­lowy veil floats high above the dancer’s head, her out­fit is richly coloured, and her face re­flects the joy she feels as she moves. It’s that joy – and fun – that dancer Anne Ver­mey­den wishes peo­ple would en­vi­sion when they hear the words belly danc­ing. The Water­loo res­i­dent says it is time to set aside the “harem fan­tasy,” gen­er­ated by the highly sex­u­al­ized pop­u­lar images from the past, and see the art form for what it re­ally is: a way to cel­e­brate.

Some peo­ple raise an eye­brow when they learn she is a per­former – and teacher – of belly danc­ing.

She says belly danc­ing brought her joy right from the time of her very first les­son. I was in­fected with belly dance.” ANNE VER­MEY­DEN

“My dad had a hard time com­ing to terms with it,” says Ver­mey­den, 29. “Those were the ‘naughty images’ from the past.”

Her aca­demic study of this dance might just raise the other eye­brow. This spring, at the Univer­sity of Guelph, she suc­cess­fully de­fended her PhD the­sis ti­tled “Hy­bridiza­tion and Un­even Ex­change: The Pop­u­lar­iza­tion of Belly Dance in Toronto, Canada (19501990).”

But her hus­band, Pim Ver­mey­den, didn’t bat an eye when she took her first belly dance class in the fall of 2011. In fact, he was re­lieved.

“We had taken ball­room danc­ing be­fore we got mar­ried,” he ex­plains. “It was the hard­est thing we ever did to­gether as a cou­ple. I was happy she didn’t need to rely on me for this.”

Pim, a 28-year-old soft­ware de­vel­oper at Vid­yard in Kitch­ener, did not an­tic­i­pate just how much his wife would en­joy it. “She was so passionate about it. Her in­ter­est in it grew more and more . . . and more and more,” he says with a laugh.

And if friends tease him about his wife’s work, he takes it in stride.

“He is to­tally sup­port­ive,” Anne says. “He finds it kind of bor­ing. It’s just my job.”

Ver­mey­den says belly danc­ing brought her joy from her very first les­son.

“I started go­ing a lot, about twice a week,” she re­calls. “I was go­ing to work­shops in Mis­sis­sauga and I met my teacher’s teacher. I was in­fected with belly dance.”

A tire­less stu­dent, she also learned Ara­bic so she could in­ter­pret the mu­sic and un­der­stand lyrics. Hav­ing heard sto­ries about per­form­ers choos­ing mu­sic that would not be ap­pro­pri­ate for danc­ing, she wanted to avoid that same mis­take.

“I couldn’t learn enough,” she says.

Ver­mey­den’s in­tro­duc­tion to belly danc­ing was unusual. While grow­ing up, she strug­gled with obsessive think­ing patterns. In the early fall of 2011, while work­ing on her master’s de­gree at the Univer­sity of Guelph, she felt her­self grow­ing worse. Af­ter seek­ing help from a ther­a­pist and a physi­cian, she was di­ag­nosed with obsessive compulsive dis­or­der, or OCD.

“(My ther­a­pist) said, ‘Get mov­ing. You need to do phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. I don’t care if it’s Zumba, or yoga, or what­ever.’”

While walk­ing home, Ver­mey­den no­ticed a woman prac­tis­ing belly danc­ing out­side her build­ing. Intrigued, she stood and watched for a while un­til the woman ap­proached her.

“She held my hands and said, ‘You need to do this.’ She gave me a pair of zills, or

fin­ger cym­bals. I had never met her be­fore.”

Ver­mey­den took the dancer’s ad­vice and set out on a path that not only helped her cope with the symp­toms of her dis­or­der, but also shaped the topic of her grad­u­ate stud­ies.

How­ever, the seeds for her in­ter­est were planted dur­ing her child­hood in Brantford.

“I had a friend in ele­men­tary school from Pales­tine,” she says. “She was try­ing to teach me some moves; it was re­ally hard. I gave up.”

She may not have been able to master the dance, but she didn’t give up her love of the mu­sic.

“I re­mem­ber go­ing to the li­brary and look­ing for Mid­dle East­ern mu­sic,” she says. And her favourite movies were “Road to Morocco” and Dis­ney’s “Aladdin.”

In high school, Ver­mey­den dis­cov­ered the

mu­sic of Shakira and, along with friends, tried to im­i­tate dance moves from mu­sic videos.

“Pop cul­ture was the draw,” she says. “I danced to Shakira and Bey­oncé. I wanted to make my ab­domen move like that.”

Ver­mey­den dis­cov­ered there was much to learn in 2011 when she met Dhar­lene Valeda of Haft Vadi Belly Dance Studio in Kitch­ener. Ver­mey­den af­fec­tion­ately de­scribes Valeda as “nerdy like me.”

“As luck would have it, I had a very aca­dem­i­cally minded teacher,” Ver­mey­den says. “She is a li­brar­ian and is into books and the aca­demic side of dance.”

Belly dance is com­mon in the Mid­dle East, Turkey, North Africa and Greece. “In Turkey there’s dif­fer­ent styl­iza­tion than in Egypt,” Ver­mey­den ex­plains. “The move­ments could be sim­i­lar, but there’s no pre­scribed way to dance.”

Ver­mey­den po­litely tol­er­ates in­ter­rup­tions for trans­la­tion when she ef­fort­lessly in­serts Ara­bic words, such as “raqs sharqi,” “dabke” and “bal­adi,” into con­ver­sa­tion. But what she won’t ac­cept are the stereo­types of the women who dance and as­sump­tions based on pop­u­lar images from the past.

“I think that as an aca­demic, we fail if we see a stereo­type and don’t look deeper,” she ex­plains. “I am both­ered by the mix­ing of the re­li­gious im­agery, and the cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.”

Ver­mey­den en­deav­oured in her PhD dis­ser­ta­tion to set the record straight.

She does not deny there is a sen­su­al­ity to the dance but, as she repeats of­ten, con­text is key. And so is un­der­stand­ing the his­tory of the dance.

First seen out­side of the Mid­dle East at the Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, the belly danc­ing per­for­mances were an in­stant sen­sa­tion. Even­tu­ally, dancers be­gan per­form­ing their ver­sion of it in bur­lesque shows, and it ap­peared in Hol­ly­wood movies. It be­came pop­u­lar in cabarets and night­clubs in the 1920s and 1930s. But none of the fa­mous per­form­ers at that time were ac­tu­ally from the Mid­dle East.

Even the term “belly dance” is prob­lem­atic, as Ver­mey­den ex­plains in her the­sis: “The French danse du ventre, ‘belly dance,’ bears no re­sem­blance to the Ara­bic, Turk­ish or Greek ter­mi­nol­ogy for these dance forms.”

Belly danc­ing en­joyed a resur­gence in pop­u­lar­ity in the 1970s and 1980s when some fem­i­nists im­bued it with spir­i­tual and god­dess themes. Ver­mey­den sighs. “Belly danc­ing is not sto­ry­telling; the move­ments have no mean­ing.”

And she bris­tles at the racist at­ti­tudes of the time that cre­ated what she re­ferred to as “the harem fan­tasy.” It dis­torts what belly danc­ing ac­tu­ally is, she says.

“It is a dance of cel­e­bra­tion. Men and women dance it at wed­dings and an­niver­sary and birth­day par­ties.”

And the beauty of the dance is what hap­pens when mu­si­cians and dancer come to­gether to per­form.

“You might have a drum­mer from Iraq, a violinist from Turkey. Ev­ery­one is com­ing from dif­fer­ent places to make new mu­sic and the dancer is learn­ing new move­ments. It all comes to­gether to cre­ate some­thing new.”

Barbara Sell­ers-Young, one of Ver­mey­den’s the­sis com­mit­tee mem­bers, agrees belly danc­ing is about im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

“The dance is a uni­fi­ca­tion be­tween the dancer and the au­di­ence and the mu­sic,” Sell­ers-Young ex­plains. “(The dancer) is the chore­og­ra­pher.”

She praises Ver­mey­den’s aca­demic achieve­ments.

“She did a thor­ough job look­ing at all the pri­mary in­for­ma­tion she could find on the dance in Toronto bring­ing it all the way up to the 1990s,” Sell­ers-Young says.

The fin­ished work could be pub­lished as a book, or bro­ken into smaller ar­ti­cles, she says.

Suc­cess in her aca­demic and dance ca­reers could not elim­i­nate all the symp­toms of Ver­mey­den’s OCD. In Jan­uary of this year she found her obsessive thoughts spi­ralling out of con­trol.

“I be­came phys­i­cally ill,” she ex­plains. “I ended up in hos­pi­tal.”

Along with start­ing on med­i­ca­tion, Ver­mey­den be­gan cog­ni­tive be­hav­iour ther­apy and has steadily im­proved but says it will al­ways be a strug­gle.

She feels it is im­por­tant to speak up about men­tal ill­ness.

“If my story reaches some­one, and maybe helps them, it’s worth it,” she says.

Both she and her hus­band of nine years be­lieve dance has helped in her heal­ing.

“Belly danc­ing has been so con­struc­tive,” Pim says. “It keeps her mind fo­cused on some­thing else.”

Chat­ting with Anne about re­cent per­for­mances proves the point as she pulls cos­tumes out of the closet for dis­play. Her face is an­i­mated and she laughs of­ten when she de­scribes her gigs.

“I can dance with live mu­sic, and I bring my own mu­sic,” Ver­mey­den says. “I ask peo­ple to tell me what they want.”

It’s all about shar­ing in peo­ple’s cel­e­bra­tions. And it’s about joy, and fun.

Anne Ver­mey­den was pho­tographed at the Haft Vadi Belly Dance Studio in Kitch­ener.


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