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March 02, 2023 4 min read

Empowerment Weekend for non-instructors


We all have Oula lyrics we identify with. Maybe you’re a  woman in total control of herself  on that  feminist tip  who knows  Victoria’s Secret. Maybe you and your bestie are  bad bitches coming in twos  laughing in the back of the class. Me? In the words of Taylor Swift,  she’s cheer captain, I’m on the bleachers  (I know, it’s not an Oula song, but bear with me). If I were to be cast in a movie, I’d be the funny sidekick - like Jennifer Coolidge but a better listener. I’d have a non-specific, do-gooder job and a few well-delivered lines that get made into a gif and used in your next Teams call.

How do I feel about my personal brand? Mostly great. The way I move through the world has gotten me successfully into my 40s. But I also have to acknowledge there are parts of my non-main character energy that come from trauma and self-protection. 

Growing up as a young woman and then coming out as a transgender man left me—and my body—exposed and vulnerable to people’s opinions and judgment. So, like a rhino,  I grew a thicker skin,  which left me safer but on the sidelines. 

Enter Oula  about six years ago. The first few years, I fit Oula into my existing personal brand. My non-Oula friends thought it was charming that a short bald guy liked dancing around to Top 40 music. I was part of the classes without being part of the culture. 

Then COVID arrived. Suddenly Oula was my only exercise and social outlet. A little group of us met outside in a community center parking lot next to a COVID testing tent. We shared our hopes and fears and even had fun during a decidedly not-fun time in world history. My wife and I did Oula One online, outside on our back deck. I was able—for the first time since transitioning—to integrate how my body was moving with how my mind was working. It felt great. As we were coming out of lockdown, my wife said to me  “I think Oula saved you.”  As she’s not one for accidentally quoting Sia, I knew it was true. 

So, when Empowerment Weekend rolled around in Seattle last August, I decided to honor my COVID experience by taking part. I had no intention of being an instructor, but I wanted to learn more about how Oula works. 

And I did! The first day of Empowerment Weekend was a total blast. We started off with a community connection class: my first time doing Oula with a group of 50 people. The energy was incredible and helped affirm right away it was going to be a pretty good day. 

The rest of the day was also lovely. The training pulled back the curtain of how instructors build energy and environment from a class. We did silly improv exercises, and learned that choreo can be “barred” out so it’s easier to learn, and all learned a song together – Lizzo’s  Special. I can’t listen to that song on the radio now without smiling. As a middle-aged person with lots of work and life responsibilities, I don’t really get the chance to take time for myself and reflect, have fun, and connect with new people. The weekend built this space. 

Participants in the Empowerment Weekend are also asked to learn and teach one song. I wasn’t exactly dreading it, as I write and make speeches for a living. It just seemed sort of non-essential given that I didn’t want to certify – and my other friends not as interested in being instructors felt some stress from the assignment. I decided to take the approach of—I can do anything for two minutes and 30 seconds—and if worst comes to worst, I can just march in place!  

I was assigned Flo Rida’s 2022 adaptation of  What A Night.  I practiced teaching the song to my dogs, who I am disappointed to share still can’t dance to even one bar (I know, it’s not about how it looks…). Then the second day of the class I danced my song in front of the Minnesota gang of trainers.

Their feedback  transformed  me. The trainers, who I did not know before the class, were so kind. They truly saw my performance, who I was and what I was trying to communicate. 

Was I best dancer in the room? No.

Did I give amazing instructions on how to do all the moves right? Also no.  

But did I have fun? Absolutely. 

Having someone see me doing something physical and be positive rather than judgmental and hurtful was everything.  I had main character energy. In the words of Flo Rida,  who’s gonna stop me now

That weekend has stayed with me and has enhanced all my Oula classes as I’ve moved from back row hider to front row diva. As I’ve allowed myself to take up space and be visible, I’ve found myself becoming happier and healthier. So, if you have a chance to go to an Empowerment Weekend - go. You will be, as Meghan Trainor says,  shook.



Jesse Gilliam






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