Belly Dancing for Afghan Literacy

“It is female-empowering. You are dancing into the earth.”

Women and girls in Afghanistan are learning to read and write because an Ontario, Canada, woman loves to  . . . belly dance.

Anne Cameron, a retired elementary school teacher in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, has raised close to $42,000 over the last 11 years for the national, not-for-profit, non-religious organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WAfgan), which uses the money to fund teachers’ salaries in the war-weary country.

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Anne Cameron

She’s done it by leading belly dancing workshops for groups of women as diverse as Mennonites and girls’-night-out party goers, and with junior kindergarteners to octogenarians.  

(See Also: Peterborough Belly Dancing Fun, April 27)

The jingling coin belts, swirling scarves and fancy veils,  which Cameron provides, all add to the fun.

“As soon as you tie the scarf around your hip it’s like a costume and people move more freely. It makes people laugh and smile and connect,” said Cameron, in a recent interview with JOURNEY Magazine. “I take it to a level where everyone can participate, from three to 103.” 

Every $750 , raised through fees and donations, pays a six-month teacher’s salary  in Afghanistan — a living wage supporting the teacher and her family and educating anywhere from 15 to 80 little girls. 

“Being a teacher and knowing how education opens up a woman’s life —  that’s what spoke to me,” said Cameron, who first discovered the art form when she joined an international dance class as a student at the University of Toronto in 1971.

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Kitchener-Waterloo workshop, May, 2018

“I found the music hypnotic. It was the earthiness of the moves. I found it so enjoyable and it was female empowering. You are dancing into the earth.”

It’s Not What You Think It Is

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Recent Kitchener-Waterloo workshop participants

But in those days, she was secretive about it, believing the negative stereotypes about belly dancing that sexualized it as women dancing for men. With her marriage, child-rearing and a career, she moved on.   

Cameron only realised the stereotypes were not true when she rediscovered it 30 years later at a Kitchener-Waterloo Community Centre in the early 2000s. There was a new era of instruction by belly dancing leaders who knew its true “fascinating history”, she said.

“It was never about women dancing for men. That freed me. I knew then I could talk about this and teach people about this.”

She said the womanly art form has been around for a thousand years, with women dancing with women who would stop their everyday activities in the fields to take a break, or, in sacred places, celebrate the biological markers in a woman’s life such as puberty, menstruation, childbirth and menopause, as well as cultural ones such as birthdays, marriages and anniversaries.

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Cameron with a group of retired teachers in Lucknow, Ontario

“CW4WAfghan tells me I’m their most frequent contributor. I do two to four  fundraisers a month and it seems $750, a six-month teacher salary, is reached every few months,” Cameron continued. She charges $30 per workshop, regardless of the number of participants.

“This fundraiser is my only ‘hobby’. I don’t knit, sew, do art, or garden and am a reluctant cook,” she said. “These workshops keep me happily busy and helps little girls far away get an education and a chance at a better life. For me, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Cameron’s belly dancing fun will be at this year’s Peterborough Red Pashmina Walk, organized by the Peterborough chapter of CW4WAfghan, April 27, at Emmanuel East United Church, with registration at 1:30 p.m.

 

CW4WAfghan has been working since 1998 to advance educational opportunities for Afghan women and girls. It partners with Afghan women to provide basic education, train teachers, set up community libraries and literacy programs, and use technology to further education.  Its other goal is to educate Canadians about human rights in Afghanistan.

By Melodie McCullough

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