Camille Vela has been a bride, a widow and a new mother, in that order — and she’s only 25. She’s also a belly dancer and has been assessing local interest in the dance form.
In August, Vela began teaching a belly dancing class at Red Tree Yoga, next to Macey’s in Tooele. But because few people showed up, she couldn’t maintain rent for the space. She said the dance form gets a bad rap, for which she has a little advice for people who hold preconceived negative judgment.
“Try it before you knock it” Vela said.
As an adolescent, Vela had to quit gymnastics because of family finances, so as a teenager she taught herself to dance. Her mother wanted Vela to participate in pageants, so she entered and won two.
For her talent portion she choreographed a dance by watching YouTube and combining international ethnic dances. She won the talent portion against teenagers who claimed to have been dancing since they were 2, she said.
But it was in Mexico Vela learned to belly dance. Her journey to Mexico is another story. It was “because of that guy right there,” she said, pointing to a picture on the wall of her late husband, Israel Vela.
Camille Vela grew up in Mississippi, a state she called the “tropics.” She went on a Spanish-speaking LDS mission to Toronto, Canada, where Israel Vela happened to live. After her mission, she returned to Canada. A month later she became Israel Vela’s fiancée.
Someone stole Israel Vela’s visa, so the couple adjusted their wedding plans and were married in Mexico, his native country. Their marriage was sealed in the Merida LDS Temple in January 2015, and they remained in Mexico until his new visa arrived.
Meanwhile, they called the dusty, brown town of Aguascalientes home. Camille Vela said her husband wanted to live in southern Mexico, the most impoverished part, so they would have opportunities to serve.
The Aguascalientes Curves weight loss gym hired her as a fitness coach. She discovered the gym offered a belly dance certification to teach classes, and she decided to go for it.
The certification consisted of repeating each move 100 times, she said. She completed the course and certified. However, she said she taught herself more online with the help of YouTube.
While working at Curves in Mexico, Vela enjoyed building women’s self-esteem. The women preferred being with just women and concentrating on themselves. The focus wasn’t on their weight, but on moving.
Vela said the women found belly dancing invigorating — emotionally, physically and mentally — and they requested that she teach it twice a week instead of once.
In April 2016, Israel Vela’s visa arrived. The couple moved to Mississippi so Camille Vela could be back in the U.S. and live closer to her family. Israel Vela took a job as a translator for an insurance company.
Four months later, he was swimming alone and died. Israel Vela’s body was found and the cause of his death was ruled an accident. He was 33.
Because he was swimming alone, no one knows exactly what happened. The swelling and bruising on his forehead and a laceration on his nose indicated it was a diving accident. Camille Vela lost the love of her life.
At the funeral, she said her sister-in-law, Janeth Abadía, grabbed her by the shoulders and told her to come live with her in Tooele. Vela felt her husband was speaking through his sister.
Vela arrived in Utah in August 2016, five months pregnant, just two weeks after her husband’s funeral. She had never heard of Tooele before. She experienced motion sickness while the aircraft landed and she knew at the time that she would not be flying or driving anywhere for a while.
“So, it was ‘hello, Utah,’” she said.
After three months, Vela approached her in-laws to inform them of a decision she had made: “I’m going to go on my own and find an apartment and start nesting,” she told them.
In December she gave birth to 10.5 pounds Jacob Israel Vela. Vela and her husband had picked the Bible name before he died.
Vela was alone in the delivery room, yet she could feel her husband’s presence. Vela said she felt she gave birth to Jacob Israel to help heal her after Israel Vela’s death.
“Tooele was probably10 solid life event changes at once,” Vela said. “I was the golden star kid, but suddenly depression and anxiety kicked in. Mexico knocked me to my knees … but then my husband was right there hand and foot.”
Following Israel Vela’s death, Camille Vela belly danced to heal, both mentally and physically.
“You know exercise is the best thing for depression, and mental stimulation is the best thing for anxiety and belly dancing does both, so it was a huge blessing for me,” she said.
As a result of that healing, Vela decided to share her talent with other local women. She posted about belly dancing on 411 to gauge the community interest. With some response, she decided to go ahead with her plan.
Vela said she never knew who was going to show up for class, so she kept her preparation informal so she could tailor the class to the level and needs of students who attended. The class was not aimed at performance, she said, but for fitness goals, weight loss, self-image and for those who want to try something new.
With belly dancing, Vela said both experienced and inexperienced dancers start at point zero, which is what makes the dance form challenging. As students struggle to learn, they grow. Her job is to help students push through the challenge.
“I’m going to come down to where you’re at and walk you through it,” she said. “ … People think, ‘I’ll get embarrassed, I won’t keep up, and I’ll look ridiculous and jiggle.’ You will jiggle and you’ll jiggle a lot, but that’s the whole point of belly dancing. You’re supposed to make it jiggle. Belly dancing is about isolation. It’s not just getting up and wiggling whatever wiggles. It’s learning how to isolate all of your abs, all of your glutes, all of your hamstrings, and all the parts of your body. You’re isolating.”
Vela offers workshops to groups. She said her students “soon realize belly dancers are not size 2-0, wearing bikini tops with genie pants belted with medallions, bells, symbols and flat, flat tummies.”
The eastern style of belly dance Vela teaches is more covered than what people think of stereotypical belly dancing. It usually involves a colored belt, which shows the movement of the hips. Vela teaches in a tank top that covers her stomach and she only shows her stomach when a student needs to see the isolation of the muscles.
“It’s not sensual, it has been sensualized,” Vela said. “ … Some women may think, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s just inappropriate.’ We’re not performing it! We’re behind closed doors. Belly dancing started as a feminine tribal thing, and was not performed for men. All women can approach it for the beauty and satisfaction of movement.”
For Vela, her journey over the last year has been one of faith. She said her husband continues to inspire her along her journey, and that God has “a special spot for his widows.”
Vela said she feels God is helping her, and telling her “‘You are taken care of. I took him, but I’m taking care of you.’ It’s really humbling. It’s really beautiful to me. I try my best to stay very aware of that.”
Vela is content for now to remain single. She dances by herself and for herself. She also said that belly dancing “is good for the married woman, the single woman, the divorced woman. Whoever the woman is, belly dancing is for you.”