In Tenafly, N.J., Elena Van Poznak, concerned that the birth of her two children has made her less svelte than the suburban-housewife standard, settles 7-month-old Teddy down for his nap. She puts Jane Fonda’s Workout Record on her stereo and commences to dance and kick vigorously about her living room. Jane exhorts, “Make it burn”; Elena misses a step and daughter Marisa, 3, who’s trying to keep up, stumbles too. Mother and daughter scowl and, in unison, say “Damn.”
In Detroit, Mich., 18 policemen from the city’s Seventh Precinct troop onto a local TV show, No Nonsense Exercise. As the latest pop hit plays in the background, they show they are more nimble than flat of foot.
In Hollywood, Calif., no less an authority than Pia Zadora, who often twitters about her place to the sounds of Stevie Wonder, declares, “Aerobic dancing is the most inspiring form of exercise.”
These students of Terpsichore, and several million more Americans, have all fallen in step with a new phenomenon: the aerobic dancing record. It was probably coincidental, but ever since Olivia Newton-John suggested “Let’s get physical” in her smash hit last year, people have stopped eating to the beat and are now exercising to it, and they are working up a sweat with the aid of a Who’s Who of recorded instructors.
“Work that body,” demands Diana Ross in her latest hit single. “Go for it,” commands Fonda in her double exercise LP. “Come on everybody and Mousercise,” urges a 53-year-old but still fit rodent named Mickey in his hit exercise platter. Olympic figure skater Linda Fratianne and TV exercise guru Richard Simmons also have jogged into recording studios to cut aerobics albums.
If all this sweating and groaning is hard on the ligaments and harder on the ignored friends and relations of the dancercisers, it is easily the best news for the sagging record business since Saturday Night Fever. Says distributor Donald Handleman of Clawson, Mich., “It’s just unbelievable. The music industry’s new hope is—I don’t even know what to call it—sweat music?”
Mickey’s Mousercise has sold more than 350,000 copies. Judi Missett’s Jazzercise went gold last month with sales of 500,000 copies. Fonda has hawked some 400,000 copies of her LP. But muscle music’s hottest platter belongs to Richard Simmons: One million copies of his Reach have already been sold. One estimate says six million dancercise albums have been sold in the last year. “At first I thought this was just a fad,” says Bill Wardlow, associate publisher and chart director of Billboard. “Now I think it’s a continuing thing. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a Top 10 or even a No. 1 aerobics album.”
The boom is an outgrowth of aerobics dance classes, which use music as the sugar that makes the medicine of calisthenics go down more easily. “We couple the music with the movement, and it’s fun,” says entrepreneur Missett, 38, head of Jazzercise, Inc., which teaches some 300,000 students in 47 states and 14 foreign countries. Likewise Fonda’s record and her bestseller, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, are both by-products of her exercise salons, which now boast some 10,000 students a week in three California locations.
Another factor behind the surge in recorded workouts was the advent of portable stereo headphones. “Over 80 percent of our clients bring a Walkman to the gym to use with their aerobics,” says Michael O’Shea, director of Sports Training Institute, a Manhattan-based sports medicine clinic. “Everyone likes a different kind of music to dissociate themselves from the exercise.”
Then, too, there are those people who, out of shyness, wouldn’t be caught dead in an exercise class. Dolly Parton, for instance, said once, “Jane Fonda’s exercise class is a great idea, except I don’t like group things and I’m particular about whom I sweat with. Besides, I can’t take my fat little thighs in with all those beautiful people.”
The out-of-shape economy hasn’t hurt either. Says fitness entrepreneur Jacki Sorensen, who first incorporated the term “aerobic dancing” (if she didn’t coin it), “It’s a lot cheaper to buy a record than join a class.” (She made a record, Aerobic Dancing, in 1980 and now operates programs in 1,500 cities.) A few obscure but cagey record companies mined the market long before the major labels got shaking. In 1976 Fort Lauderdale’s tiny Gateway Records initiated a line of Beautiful People exercise albums. That year they generated a paltry $20,000, but by 1980 sales had jumped to $150,000. This year they are expected to reach $11 million. Vintage Records, a small Cleveland label, has struck gold with two albums by aerobics instructor Carol Hensel. Last summer Hensel’s Exercise & Dance Program Volume I became the first exercise album ever to sell more than 500,000 copies; it has now gone past a million. “That is the exercise record that started it all,” says national publicity director Ben Rzepka of Mirus Music, Vintage’s distributor. “I don’t think there would ever be a Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons album had it not been for this. It’s kind of like Orville and Wilbur Wright flying the first plane.”
Simmons’ Reach, however, has taken the genre forward a giant step. Instead of calling out exercise instructions to a background of dance music, as most aerobics album creators do, Simmons collaborated on original music with composers Allee (Boogie Wonderland) Willis and Bruce (Enough Is Enough) Roberts. “Most of the aerobic dance albums are ditzy,” says Willis. “They’re just re-recorded tracks with someone screaming commands at you. Richard’s philosophy is that you must have fun.”
Simmons, already famous for his syndicated TV exercise show and his two best-selling books, The Never-Say-Diet Book and The Never-Say-Diet Cookbook, took his recording stint seriously. He studied singing for eight weeks with cantor Nat Lam. Then, Simmons says, “I went into the studio and sang in a small room that was all curtained off. I didn’t want to see a bunch of people pushing buttons. I wanted to imagine I was singing to my students. I did one take of You Can Do It, and the song meant so much to me I started to cry and had to be driven home.”
Reach has hit 46th on the Billboard best-selling charts. It might be even higher but many of the albums have been sold in places outside the ken of the magazine’s platter counters. “We’ve opened special accounts in health stores,” says Joe Smith, chairman of the board of Elektra/Asylum Records, Simmons’ label, “plus we’re doing a direct-mailing campaign.”
The album has provided yet another platform for the world’s most exuberant exercise proselytizer. “You should exercise for the fun of it,” Simmons hectors. “It’s good for the head, teaches you discipline and releases tension and stress.” (Simmons refuses to call his record an aerobics album: “It sounds like you’re going to Florida to watch the space shuttle.”)
Some critics question whether any benefits are being wrought by unsupervised aerobics dancing. “Twisting back and forth to some Muzak isn’t going to do you much good,” says Soni Goodman, director of a San Francisco aerobics academy called Kicks. Adds the Sports Training Institute’s O’Shea: “The problem with a record is that it doesn’t know if you’re in good shape or bad shape; it spits out the same spiel for everyone. People with low back problems and knee injuries should be careful of these jerky movements.”
Some authorities urge home bodybuilders to obtain a doctor’s advice before they dance themselves into trouble. “People try to get into shape too rapidly,” says Dr. Ken Cooper, physician and exercise physiologist and author of Aerobics, the 1968 book on cardiovascular benefits of exercise that begat the movement. (It advocates swimming and running as the most efficient ways to work out.) “I’m very leery of some of these programs. They’re going too fast.”
Don’t tell that to the believers. In her book, Aerobic Dancing, Jacki Sorensen writes that it is not intended as a weight-loss program, but “we have discovered that students burn about 300 calories in a moderate 45-minute class, which is equivalent to bicycling for 45 minutes at 7 mph. As many as 500 calories are burned during a vigorous 45-minute class, which compares to swimming for 1 hour at 30 yards per minute.” “I’m building up my cardiovascular system—to say nothing of my buns,” agrees actress Rita Moreno of TV’s 9 to 5. Although an estimated 90 percent of aerobics aficionados are women, many men have also begun to tunefully tune their bodies. Among them is Los Angeles Rams All-Pro safety Nolan Cromwell, 27, who studied the discipline with Nancy Gregory, choreographer of the Rams cheerleaders. “It’s not like working out for football,” says Cromwell. “A lot of muscles are involved that I don’t even use in the game.”
Even if aerobics lasts, nobody knows what the long-term effects of the craze will be. But Simmons, for one, has no doubt they’ll be salutary. He even has a few kind words for at least one of his competitors, Mickey Mouse. “It’s critical for kids to exercise,” he says. “The only unfortunate thing about Mickey’s album and mine is that they’re so much fun to listen to that I’m afraid someone might forget to exercise.”