Interview with Joanna Rohrback, the Prancercise Guru

Last week, Joanna Rohrback achieved national fame after a five-minute video of her demonstrating her exercise program Prancercise — “a springy, rhythmic way of moving forward, similar to a horse’s gait and ideally induced by elation” — went viral. I talked to the 61-year-old Florida resident about living free and Prancing hard.

Joanna, I’m a big fan of your work. I tried to do Prancercise this morning as interview prep and it was a lot of fun and I also felt very self-conscious for the first few minutes. Any tips for people who have a hard time letting go?

They might want to try to do it in their houses first if they have enough space to travel between rooms. Or maybe they could do it with other people so they won’t be as self-conscious. I don’t know! I never was like that.

I actually started Prancercise on the Hollywood boardwalk where all these addict athletes were just strutting their stuff, running and Rollerblading. This was back in ’89, and the heads did turn, but I didn’t care. And if I really wanted privacy, or if it was raining or something, I could still do it pretty much anywhere, even in a parking garage!

Have you always lived your life the way you Prancercise?

Oh yeah. I’m not like a crazy person, I wouldn’t go skydiving or do anything unsafe, but I’ve always just lived and acted how I want. I know I’m not in style all the time, and my lingo might not be up to date, and right now I wear ankle weights all day long — but I always try to have fun and help people and do what I love.

What sort of music do you like to listen to during your workouts?

I’m a Motown girl, believe it or not. I do branch out to other types of songs, like “Notorious,” and even the BeeGees. But it’s a lot of Motown. If you’ll notice, even in the video that’s online, the music I used was as close to Motown as I could get from what was available in the public domain.

What’s the best place you’ve ever Prancercised?

In a cornfield in Iowa. It was just unbelievable — the smell, the scenery. It was so private and beautiful and nature was all around me.

What’s the longest that you’ve ever Prancercised for?

I try to do at least 45 minutes a day, and I don’t take days off. Why would I take days off? It lifts my spirits.

Do you think about any specific things when you work out or do you try to just zone out and get into the music?

I let go. Of course it’s very hard to avoid pressing matters, so they might come into play early on in your workout, but you’ll always get into it (as long as the phone’s off).

Prancercise came about organically — you were working out and just started to move a certain way and liked it. How long did it take for you to formulate the different steps, like the trot and the gallop and the box?

The walk was the one that came to me first, when I was power-walking to a really great song on the radio and started to sashay. Then I wanted some upper body toning and developed the box, and then the trot was just fun — why do you think I was a little late for this interview? I was trotting, of course! — and it’s just nice to have the gallop for when a song changes and you want to get some increased cardio.

You conceive of Prancercise as an alternative to a more rigid, numbers-based gym culture. Had you ever been part of that? How did you work out before Prancercise?

I’ve never done gyms, never. I abhor regimentation and imitation. I did some yoga before — I actually still do a little yoga, because it’s important to stretch and warm up before exercising. But yes, I do see Prancercise as an alternative. There are benefits in doing this workout over running, because you’re not pounding the pavement in one fixed position — you’re displacing your weight for an easier impact.

There are a couple of very famous doctors who have endorsed the program, actually. And I should clarify something else — some naysayers think that people will get knee injuries if they wear ankle weights, but I say you can modify the program for any need! If you have weak knees, don’t wear ankle weights. In general, don’t ever do something that’s going to hurt you. And anyway, the ankle weights I wear are only one pound each.

Tell me more about the video that’s made you famous. Did you really make it in 1989?

No, that’s a common misconception. There are two videos. I did film a video in 1989 — it was called Funky Punky’s Prancercise Program, and I used it to copyright my idea at the Library of Congress and show people what I was working on. But I couldn’t market with it because of copyright issues with the music.

It’s too bad, because you know those little bits in the new video where I rhyme, there’s lots more of that in the old video — the script is pretty funny. But the video that’s online, I put it together in the fall, and it went up for the public in December as I was getting my website and book together.

Who filmed the video?

My video guy was in a golf cart facing backwards while another guy drove. It was actually raining intermittently that day and he wanted to stop, but I said, “No! We have to finish!”

Let’s talk about horses. What’s the horse connection? What about horses do you love so much?

I started to dwell on the concept of horses when I came up with the name Prancercise.

Oh yeah — how did you come up with the name?

It came pretty fast. I knew about Jazzercise and other –cises, so I knew that that formula worked well, and of course I was prancing. Put them together and what do you get!

Cool. And back to the horses?

Yes. Well, I was putting everything together for the book, and I thought — what a great way to illustrate this program, through the beauty and strength of a horse. Horses certainly partake in a vegetarian diet, so they fit with the whole model, and as animals they are so graceful and so strong. I’ve always loved watching them. Equestrian horses, parade horses — Tennessee Walkers have that particular gait that’s very close to what I do, they bob their heads rhythmically and all that.

Have you ever done Prancercise alongside a horse?

I’m so glad you asked that question. This is my dream! I haven’t done it yet, but I have been invited by several ranches to come and do a video with some of their horses, and I can’t wait.

You conceive of Prancercise as a holistic program. How important is the diet component? Can a person love pizza and beer and Prancercise all at once?

Absolutely. Just moving is so important, and I’m realistic, I know the whole world’s not going to change their diet. Optimal health, in my opinion, comes from a vegetarian diet — but anyone can benefit from this movement. I would never discourage anyone from becoming a part of it.

How do you see Prancercise growing over, say, the next five years? What are your goals?

I haven’t really had time to look into what all the people who’ve contacted me want to do with Prancercise — a lot of people are talking about a lot of different things, but I’ll get to it in time. I know that I definitely want a few specific messages to come out from this.

Number one, I want people to benefit from expressing themselves as individuals. I don’t want them to worry about what they look like and their exercise schedule and how it measures up to other people’s workout regimens. Prancercise can be customized to everyone’s own particular style, and it’s a form of self-expression that people could really gain from. Through self-expression I believe that we can diffuse pain and violence.

Number two, I want to support and promote vegetarianism, which is better for environmental conservation and better for people’s health.

Have you been surprised by anyone who has emerged as a fan over the last week? Is your fan base old, young, male, female?

It’s such a cross-section! For example, I’ve already had an email from Army men who are Prancercising as part of their exercise routine. But I get emails from women in their late 70’s who thank me for giving them a form of exercise that they can actually keep up with without a problem — there was a twentysomething girl on my flight back from New York who wanted to Prancercise with me in the aisle — and I get emails from families and kids saying that everyone’s doing this together and having a lot of fun.

Do you see yourself teaching classes, making DVDs, opening studios?

I’ve taught people before — I actually did a 5k Turkey Trot last year on Thanksgiving morning, where I had external music and everyone was able to do Prancercise along with me, and that was really cool. Lots of smiles on everyone’s faces.

But I think it’s more important for me to do lectures and convey the concept rather than inundate myself with physical classes. I don’t want to get any thinner, you know!

Is that a concern for you? Do you find yourself Prancercising too much?

In the beginning, yes. I did it way too much when I first discovered it, and it took a physical toll. In fact, anyone who starts to do this might find themselves using a lot of new muscles, maybe even getting a blister or two! I got over all that eventually, and I’m what I call “fortified for Prancercise” now.

How would you describe yourself to a stranger?

I’m an individual free-thinker — that’s the way I’ve always been and probably the way I always will be. I try to have decent integrity, I’m a little kooky, I do different things from the mainstream, and I’m not overly concerned with my appearance and what’s in style.

Would you call yourself a feminist?

A little bit, maybe!

Aside from Prancercise, what makes you happy? What inspires you?

I really like helping people. I’ve done wellness coaching for the elderly and disabled, helped them psychologically deal with life a little bit better. Yeah, that’s what gives me pleasure. I also love my animals, I’ve got my three feral cats — I took a few interviews off my schedule in New York because I was rushing back to take care of them. Their names are Farley, Sadie and Olive. They’re beautiful — one Siamese, one with a splash of orange on black, one all black.

You’ve always been interested in helping people — you were a social worker for some years and you have a public health background. Did you ever expect that Prancercise is the way you would make your big impact?

Oh no. This is an aberration, it’s a real fluke. I’m very happy about everything that’s happened, but it probably would not have been my first choice to get famous from a video that so many people think is risqué.

Risqué how?

My pants!

But I love those pants. They struck me as very coherent with the spirit of Prancercise.

Well, thank you. It sounds like you get it. And that’s really nice! I hope a lot more people are able to go past the video and understand the message of Prancercise.

Previously: Interview With an International Adoptee

Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.