On a weekday evening, I am standing in a small gym in the Lifelong Learning Center alongside a dozen other women. I'm waiting for my first Oula aerobic dance class to start, and I'm already a little flushed and hot. That might be because I had a wee glass of wine before leaving the house, just to work up my courage to do something I've spent most of my life avoiding: working out in front of other people.
The petite, muscular instructor, Lizzie Dolan, stands at the front of the class. She explains that she likes to sing along, shout and shake her butt a lot, and we are welcome to do the same as she leads us through frenetic routines of kicking, jumping, skipping and twirling our arms to tracks from Pitbull, Walk the Moon and Andy Grammer. I try to keep up as best I can, inwardly cringing when I screw up a move and turn in the wrong direction. Oddly, though, nobody else seems to notice my mistakes.
As a slow, clumsy kid growing up, I assumed that all exercise was just like gym class, where I routinely got teased and belittled. It wasn't until I got to college that I found my place in solo or non-competitive activities like hiking or yoga. Though I rely on regular exercise to keep me sane and burn off steam, I still avoid gyms, and I'm skeptical of modern-day fitness fads and their promises to "blast fat" and "melt away the pounds."
Oula, a locally grown fitness format, bills itself as an easygoing and quirky alternative to the status quo. It's more about waving your hands in the air than clinched fists, less gritted teeth than unrestrained energy. In other words, it's a bit more approachable to someone like me. And it's certainly garnered a devoted following in the five years since it began, growing from Missoula to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Gyms as far as Los Angeles and Alaska offer Oula classes. This winter, the second stand-alone Oula Studio is set to open in Bozeman.
"So the thing about Oula is it's not just a workout," says founder and owner Kali Lindner. Rather, she wants to help "create a healthy mind-body experience."
My first class didn't exactly feel like a holistic transformation, and I was more than a little relieved when it was over. But I felt invigorated after class, rather than worn-out. That's when it occurred to me that Oula just might have stumbled on the one weird trick to get people to exercise—by not making it about the "exercise" at all.
The Oula logo, which is a silhouette of a woman leaping with outstretched limbs, makes total sense after watching Lindner in action. When she leads a class, she is all unrestrained joy and sweat, yelling along to the songs and jumping into the air.
Outside of class, Lindner comes across as a serious businesswoman, one who balances running a small company with parenting a 1-year-old. She explains that Oula originated when she realized that she wanted to tap into some of her favorite childhood memories of dancing around to CDs while alone in her bedroom. Back in the day, that was to artists like Ani DiFranco. More recently, she recalls a pivotal moment five years ago when she was alone in a Bozeman hotel, kicking back after a day of yoga instruction.
"I remember, after a long day of being very serious in my yoga training, that Rihanna's "Umbrella" came on MTV, and I stood up and I just started dancing," Lindner says. "And I was like, this feels so good just to dance, and it feels good to dance to music like this."
Lindner grew up in Helena, taking dance classes like ballet and jazz. She went on to become an instructor in yoga and Nia, an aerobic dance workout. While Lindner says she loved yoga and dance, she wanted to create something that was less serious or precise and more about free expression.