by Nate Widom
As a self-described “jack of all trades but master of some,” HAC group fitness instructor Tina Occhilupo juggles being a dog-mom, dental hygienist, personal trainer, and musician with a strict fitness and diet routine. The members in her classes know her as a singing delight that makes them laugh, smile, and most importantly, get them through their grueling workout.
“When I make a participant laugh or smile, I feel like my work is done,” states Tina. “I try to tell stories to make the participants forget the pain that we’re enduring. I’ll tell them about a cheat meal, or what I did over the weekend…or a quirky story of something that happened.”
But her fitness journey wasn’t all glitter and gold. Tina was overweight as a child, and through some motivation and encouragement, she gained interest in bodybuilding and nutrition. At the age of 18, she began teaching fitness classes.
Born in northern New Jersey, her path took her to Florida and then Delaware at the age of 20. Once in Delaware, Tina really ramped up her fitness routine. She joined a small bodybuilding gym in New Castle where she met a woman named Jana, who taught her Freestyle Step aerobics and inspired her to receive fitness certifications. Tina later joined another nearby gym where she taught several classes a week like her current schedule at HAC.
However, an injury became an obstacle in her fitness journey. In 2001, she was injured with three herniated discs in her lower back, halting her fitness routine and affecting her movement. “I thought I was out,” states Tina. “It was about five years where I didn’t really lift weights or exercise much at all. I struggled at my job as a dental hygienist, in constant pain, but I worked through it!”
But Tina prevailed. She walked, stretched, and used her inversion table. Eventually, the pain subsided. “It was a long time with that sciatic pain, and I’ve conquered it!” she states. “Our bodies are designed to heal, and it slowly went away on its own with daily stretching, daily walking, daily movement…contrary to the invasive surgery and pills that my doctors had prescribed!”
Once her injury subsided, she got back into fitness and in 2008 joined the Hockessin Athletic Club with only the intention of working out and getting back into better shape. However, her journey at HAC turned out to be much more! She began taking group fitness classes with instructors Anna Lambert, Susan Storm, and Summer Stinson, who inspired her to become a group fitness instructor again.
“I just loved her style of teaching [and] how welcoming she was to all her participants that came to class,” Tina recalls about Anna. Her instructors inspired her to go back into teaching and re-obtain her certifications for LesMills BodyPump and BodyStep, along with a NASM personal training certificate.
Fitness wasn’t the only activity Tina wanted to master—she wanted to master music. She loved singing and was an early heavy metal fan, inspired by her two older brothers. On her 14th birthday, Tina was gifted an electric guitar. At 16, she got her first acoustic, and her style of playing started to form.
Tina is 100% self-taught and always pushes herself to expand her musical talents. A significant hallmark in her musical journey transpired when she met her future bandmate, Brian Becker in 2011. “When I met Brian, he was already in a band. And it was just a casual thing where we got together just to jam,” Tina recalls. “We had the same taste in music.”
The two formed their classic rock duo Bella Von together in 2013, with Tina as the lead vocalist playing rhythm guitar, and Brian as the lead guitarist and secondary vocalist. They performed their first gig at a fundraising event at Mike and Nick’s, a former restaurant in Hockessin’s Lantana Square shopping center.
After hustling to find enough music to play for two hours, their performance was a success and gained fans—including the restaurant owner who asked the duo to return every Friday night to perform. From there, Bella Von performed at many other notable locations in the area, including Hartefeld National Golf Club, the Christiana Hilton, Braeloch Brewing, the Creamery, Redfire Grill, and Twisted Irons Craft Brewing.
“Anybody who loves the classics is gonna love Bella Von!” Tina proclaims. “We do all the favorite hits people love from the 60s ’til today. For example, we do Elton John and Kiki Dee, ‘Don’t Go Breaking my Heart.’” The duo also enjoys playing music from bands like The Carpenters and songs like “Penny Lane” from the Beatles to set their band apart.
Most of the band’s audience is in their late 40s, early 50s, and 60’s, and they appreciate songs they haven’t heard in a while. “Some people would say, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t heard that song in forever!’ And they dig it!” mentions Tina. She expresses great gratitude for her followers who come out regularly and support her and Brian. Generally, the band mostly sticks to older classic songs, with the newest music mainly from the 1990s. “We do some Goo Goo Dolls, Tonic, Cheryl Crow, Jewel,” Tina recalls.
Tina is thankful for her excellent musical relationship with Brian. “He’s a really close friend! He’s a music genius to me, and I love him for that!” she states. “He teaches me a lot as we go along learning songs. “Almost every week, we would practice 2-3 hours to build our song list.”
However, aside from music, the two are total opposites. “We have nothing in common in terms of stuff like fitness, diet, exercise,” Tina states. “We really blend together musically. We’ve been doing this for nine years, and that is really saying something…because you usually only see that with married duos that play.”
And, according to Tina, keeping a band together is challenging and much easier for bands with only two members. “You’ve got a lot of personalities and a lot of drama sometimes with multiple members. So, when you have a duo, it’s easier to keep the music going,” she remarks.
While the duo is still currently playing at many locales, COVID-19 has slowed things down. “A lot of people are still a little wary about coming out, especially if it’s indoors,” states Tina. However, Tina and Brian enjoy outdoor shows in the spring and summer months, especially when the weather cooperates!
During the COVID pandemic shut down, Tina created a home fitness page, “Quarantinabella home fitness,” where she conducted live virtual workouts 3-4x a week to keep herself and her participants motivated to stay fit during gym closures.
And, of course, Tina’s musical background influences her fitness teaching style! Tina’s group fitness classes are like no other at HAC as she blends her musical and performative qualities to create a unique workout.
“I think a lot of people look forward to me singing in class. Even if it’s one of the dancier songs like in BodyStep, or BodyPump, I change the lyrics and I’ll SING the cues!” states Tina. “It’s funny!”
Tina believes that teaching group fitness is like a performance. “I wanna teach classes that are not only a good workout, but are fun and entertaining!” mentions Tina. “While other instructors may not be musical performers or singers, they are still performing their own style of teaching! When you get in front of all those people, you’re not there for yourself, you’re there for them. You wanna make group fitness as enjoyable as possible, so they will keep coming back!”
Tina would love to incorporate even more of her own touch of music into her classes. “You know what I would love? “I would love to take my own songs and make my own “Tina-Mills” fitness classes,” she jokes. “My participants will know what I’m talking about!”
While Tina’s lifestyle may serve as an inspiration to many, she insists she isn’t perfect. “I’m not a picture of perfect health,” says Tina. “My dental hygiene career of 28 years has caused me to have a lot of neck, back, and shoulder issues. I have herniated discs in my neck, which I manage with frequent chiropractor visits, massage therapy, and exercise!”
One of Tina’s favorite quotes is, “He who cannot find time for exercise will find time for illness.” And not only does Tina find time for fitness, but she also finds the time for many other aspects of her life. “I always put in 100% on whatever I do. I try to, anyway.”
With all her hard work, Tina is proud of her fitness accomplishments and the positive results. “My fitness accomplishment is just being able to do what I do at age 52! I love the fact that I can keep up with others 1/2 my age!” mentions Tina. “I think that’s just clean living and staying fit, you know, staying active. Fitness can be achieved at any age! It’s never too late to get started! Everything in moderation! I can attribute my accomplishments mostly to my love of exercising, hard work, teaching, and helping others achieve their goals as well.”