The eight women standing behind Erika Ochoa concentrated on her shimmies and shakes, trying to mimic their teacher’s hip motions. For about half the women, this was their first time belly dancing.
“I’ve danced since I was 7, but I’ve never belly danced,” Annette Wright said when the 45-minute lesson at Pineapple Dance Studio ended. “It was fun. I had a great time with it. I got a good workout out of it, too. So that’s nice.”
Wright, an Oak Park mom, had also never been inside Ochoa’s Forest Park studio at 7518 Madison. She was drawn by a weekend-long open house of free dance lessons, an annual event since Ochoa took over the second-floor studio space three years ago. She specializes in African, Middle Eastern and other forms of ethnic dance.
“Have fun,” Ochoa said of the studio’s goal. “Try something you may never try and move in a different way.”
Of all the dance styles taught at Pineapple Dance, belly dancing has gotten the greatest response. Women of all shapes, ages and ethnicities have shown an interest in learning to belly dance, said Ochoa, and that spectrum was evident during her classes Saturday and Sunday. Women in their mid-20s danced alongside others with graying hair. Colorful scarves, provided by Ochoa, were tied around the hips of whites, blacks and Hispanics.
“It really builds your self-esteem right away,” Stacy Perez, of Melrose Park, said. “It’s wonderful.”
Perez and her friend, Perla Gallegos, of Maywood, also made their first trip to Pineapple Dance Studio to take advantage of the free classes. They planned to participate in at least two. Gallegos had never tried belly dancing and said afterward that it’s harder than she thought it would be, but fun.
Perez had taken a class elsewhere and was struck by the empowering nature of the movements.
“I really like it. You feel self-confident,” Perez said.
Ochoa, who moved to the U.S. 15 years ago from Mexico City, began studying the dance style about a year after coming to the States. She was bored using treadmills and other equipment at the gym, and so decided to use an almost lifelong interest in Middle Eastern culture, particularly Egypt, as a way to get her exercise.
In addition to running her Forest Park studio, Ochoa is an instructor at Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. She has a degree in fashion design and makes many of the costumes used in her productions.
Belly dancing, said Ochoa, is terribly misunderstood in the U.S. Many of the routines and costumes people may be familiar with were created in California and are not representative of the style’s roots. Also, the sensual qualities of the movements are not intended to entertain men. This is a dance, said Ochoa, for women.
“The dance has nothing to do with being sexy,” Ochoa said. “It’s fun.”