Sunday 28 April 2024

Let's Get Physical

 All right ladies. Are you ready? Let's go!

I enjoyed Danielle Friedman's account of the rise of women's exercise classes Let's Get Physical. It's organised into chapters with titles like Stretch, Bounce and Burn, etc each denoting a different exercise. The book covers women's ballet barre, Jazzercise, yoga, aerobics, running and weightlifting and I found some chapters more interesting than others.

My favourite was Burn which of course was Jane Fonda's 'go for the burn' phrase during the 1980s dance aerobics craze.  Incidentally this phrase was gradually dropped from the workout as doctors questioned the safety of it.  I used to think that the Jane Fonda workout was very glamorous but now it is available on YouTube it seems utterly insane!

Of course it's easy to laugh now at the leg warmers and hyper extended leg stretches but Friedman raises deeper questions. What was it that women found - and still do find - when they can get away from home, work and family for a couple of hours to exercise together?  The form of exercise may change but the joy, peace, well- being and strength to be found in communal exercise remains.

I didn't know that the Jane Fonda Workout Video was the first of its kind and sold 17 million copies.  Or that all the money went to fund her then husband's political campaign.  But she comes across as likeable and self-aware in this book.

As Friedman explains, the rise of women's exercise classes in the 1950s pioneered by Bonnie Prudden and Lottie Berk were routed in ballet.  Jane Fonda, too, was ballet trained but the popularity of the dance- based exercise class began to decline in the late 1980s.  Women were nursing injuries from overdoing it and were looking for a gentler and more spiritual form of exercise.

'Like a lotus flower rising from the mud' yoga began to peak in popularity in the 1990s.  Of course this ancient practice had always been around but was popularised in America by Indra Devi and the charismatic Lilias Folan who had a yoga television show Yoga and You in the 1970s beginning each episode with a reassuring voice.  Friedman describes feeling stressed with deadlines, work and family when interviewing Lilias Folan who is now 87 for the book and becomes tearful when Lilian reminds her to exhale. Suddenly I got it. So this is why women like yoga.  

 If I have any criticism of this book I would say that it is very US based.  As someone who has spent many years taking classes - aerobics, zumba, yoga - in chilly village halls and overcrowded dance studios a corresponding UK history of the women's exercise class would be interesting.