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Dance the blues away

Can Oula — a popular cardio dance workout — fight depression? An MSU researcher aims to find out.

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At first blush, the Oula cardio dance workout doesn't seem much different from other trendy group exercises like Zumba. But for Tracy Hellem, a Missoula-based medical researcher, Oula was a "lifesaver." On a gray day last fall, she followed the loud music pumping from a room in the YMCA gym and started her first Oula class. At the time, she was dealing with a sense of loss after going through two miscarriages in the same year. She found herself feeling uplifted after an hour of Oula, in which instructors lead groups in exuberant dancing and shouting along to the music.

"Since my body had failed me twice, I just didn't feel very womanly," Hellem says. "But attending Oula, just doing the sexier dance moves, started to instill some of that confidence. And a big part of it is processing feelings."

If Oula made a difference for her, Hellem wondered, how might it affect people with clinical depression? As a researcher at the Montana State University College of Nursing, Hellem studies therapies for meth addiction and depression. She thought it would be simple enough to see if others would benefit from Oula. She reached out to Oula founder and creator Kali Lindner, who is also open about what it's like to experience a miscarriage.

"We bonded over that and talked about that," Lindner says.

Lindner—who is five months pregnant and so has cut back on Oula classes—says she designed Oula not just as a workout, but also as an emotional support system. Many "Oulagins" share encouragement before class and in a private Facebook group. Oula classes are built around top-40 songs that run a gamut of emotional expression, from Demi Lovato's saucy "Confident" to Sia's heart-wrenching "The Greatest." Instructors are free to design playlists in response to what's going on in their lives or in the world, including mass shootings and presidential elections.

"I don't believe just dancing to happy songs is going to make you happy," Lindner says. "I believe to truly heal deep wounds, you have to activate the motions."

Hellem conducted an informal online survey that showed several respondents attend Oula primarily for therapeutic reasons. She hasn't finished tabulating the data, but says it's already suggestive enough to initiate an intervention study, for which recruiting began in late October. She's seeking up to 30 participants who have little to no experience with Oula to see if taking the classes regularly for 12 weeks makes a difference in their mood.

Oula's benefits aren't yet proven, but Hellem says she's personally convinced.

"Kali was instrumental in my healing from pregnancy loss," Hellem says. "She really encourages people to let sadness come to the surface and experience healing that way. Her approach really made a big difference in how I've recovered from that."

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