The only thing I knew about belly dancing was that James Bond and his arch-nemesis enjoyed watching it, before they resumed trying to kill each other. That was before I visited Pineapple Dance Studio to interview Erika Ochoa.
Erika doesn’t just teach and perform belly dancing; she has an encyclopedic knowledge of its history. There are many myths associated with the dance, mostly fostered by Westerners. The very name is a corruption of the Egyptian word Beledi, which means, “From the people.”
When this folk dance originated, there were no bare bellies. Performers wore one-piece costumes, or many layers of traditional clothes – leaving everything to the imagination. The two-piece harem costume was invented by Hollywood in the 1930’s. The jewel in the navel was also a cinematic device, as naked navels were forbidden.
So, belly dancing literally had modest origins. It was not intended as a sensual dance performed for guys in fezzes. Women appreciated the spectacle as much as men. It also doesn’t degrade females. It empowers women, increases their self-confidence and gives them an enhanced image of their bodies.
“It’s for women of all ages and sizes,” Erika said, “It’s good for conditioning and relieving stress.” Another reason it appeals to women is that they don’t need a partner. Not that they could find one. “It’s very rare for a man to want to move his hips,” Erika observed.
Although she was born and raised in Mexico City, Erika might just as well have come from Cairo. She studied with an Egyptian teacher in New York and got hooked on the native music. Many of her beginner students are unfamiliar with traditional Middle Eastern music. So, Erika exposes them to cotemporary types, like hip-hop from Cairo.
Each Middle Eastern country has its own style of music and dancing but the instruments are standard. There is the tabla drum, the oud (“the grandfather of the guitar”) and a stringed instrument called the qanun. Dancers join in the music-making, playing finger cymbals called zills.
Students take one-hour classes for eight weeks to learn this new language of dance. It’s a workout. They are not only learning specific steps, they are also making snake arms and hand circles. They have the option of wearing costumes during their “student show.” These handmade creations from Egypt can cost up to a $1,000.
Belly dancing is increasingly popular in the US. Erika also teaches Zumba and recently added Fly Yoga classes. This combines yoga with acrobatics, gymnastics and dance. For this exercise, Erika installed blue hammocks that hang from the ceiling. Students use the hammocks to exercise their whole body – Cirque du Soleil-style.
All of this will be on display on Sept. 7, when Erika hosts an Open House from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. It will be a day for taking free dance lessons, observing dancers and staying hydrated with free water. There will definitely be a demonstration of what Erika describes as, “The opposite of Irish dancing.”
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.