“Don’t forget to smile,” says Karla Marie Cochran, founder and instructor of Belly Dance Goddess Hour and the director of Shimmy Shakti Troupe. We are hard at work shaking our knees and booties to do something called, “a shimmy.” We have to do it for two minutes straight, and I can feel the sweat beading down my forehead. The last thing I want to do is smile, yet here I am, smiling ear-to-ear as the room fills with the sound of jingling coin skirts.

Dressed in matching tank tops featuring the words “Belly Dance Goddess Hour, Shimmy Shakti” and an illustrated Hindu goddess on the front, a diverse group of women ranging in age, body-types and professions, welcome my editorial cohorts to their first belly dancing class.

“I loved the fun, feminine energy and who wouldn’t enjoy shaking it in a coin skirt?” says Kimberly Singletary, editor of Biz New Orleans magazine.

Shakti is the female principle of divine energy, often used to refer to the Hindu goddess of femininity, Adi Parashakti. Those unfamiliar with the art form often assume belly dancing is just an erotic dance meant for sexualized entertainment and women with flat stomachs. In reality, belly dancing – also known as Raqs Al Farrah “Dance of Happiness” or Raqs Sharqi “Oriental Dance” – is an empowering and body-positive art open to all ages, sizes and beliefs.

“It’s very empowering and allows you the space to explore your movement and your body, without feeling insecure or judged,” says web editor Kelly Massicot. “More women would benefit from a class experience like this one.”

Cochran’s Shimmy Shakti Troupe, which I joined in August 2015, has performed in festivals and showcases throughout New Orleans and the Northshore, and is now hard at work practicing for Cochran’s biggest dance project yet, titled “Shimmy Soul: A New Orleans Belly Dance Experience.” The weekend workshop and gala show, Dec. 2-4, will present international dancing sensations Sadie Marquardt and Simon Sarkis of Lebanon.

“To me, belly dancing is about discovery; it’s about falling in love with your soul; it’s about having the freedom to breathe and dance in your own light,” says Cochran.

Classically trained in ballet and jazz, Cochran began belly dancing in 2005 and teaching in ’08. Shimmy Shakti has been performing for six years and has grown to more than 20 members. Cochran hopes to open her own studio soon in New Orleans. For more information on the December gala and class packages, visit BellyDanceNewOrleans.blogspot.com.