Shannon from Retrosweat
Shannon Dooley is the brains (and butt) behind Sydney’s boutique fitness extravaganza, Retrosweat. Coming from a background in musical theatre, Shannon has set out to create an authentic ‘80s-inspired fantasy world of fitness and fun. PLUS mullet wig.
I’m not ashamed to admit that the first time I met Shannon Dooley from Retrosweat, I spent the best part of an hour staring at her butt. It was a Tuesday night in winter at the Redfern PCYC, and she was decked all out in shimmer tights, leg warmers, white Reeboks and a g-string leotard, complete with mullet wig. The epitome of '80s aerobic superstar. A mirage. “Is she even real?” I whispered to my friends. I was enthralled, and sweaty. I’ve been to the Thursday night class at the Bondi Pavillion ever since. I’m hooked.
I can personally attest to the joy that Retrosweat brings to the masses. Even if I’m in the shittiest mood, I leave the class walking on air. Such is the power of hilarious retro aerobics moves, Shannon’s dry jokes and sweet old-school tunes. During the Retrosweat 2014 Birthday Bash (and Shannon’s 30th birthday), we did a particularly candid number to ‘Under the Sea’ (yes, from The Little Mermaid) and there was not a blank face in the house. Every single one of us was laughing and smiling, at each other and at ourselves, bursting with delight and hilarity in our leotards and legwarmers. And that’s what exercise should be all about.
"The whole point is you can be fit, not-so-fit, tall, short, happy with your body or not, it doesn’t matter. People come in and no one is looking at anyone else with judgement, everyone’s in costume and anything goes."
Shannon’s background in musical theatre and acting at NIDA means that she approaches the role of aerobics instructor the way she would an acting part. The research that’s gone into creating this retro world, and her character, is out of this world. Shannon is now the go-to girl for ‘80s trivia among her friends.
From humble beginnings as a pop-up “Physique Aerobics” class in a room in Surry Hills three years ago, Shannon has used social media and her natural (hilarious) charm to attract a solid following. She started with nothing but a boom box, a Certificate 3 in Fitness and retail/babysitting on the side. Now Retrosweat is a full-time gig, offering three classes a week – Alexandria, Bondi and Surry Hills – as well as hen’s parties and events. “Up until six months ago, I didn’t even have a website. Just Instagram and Facebook. It’s been purely word-of-mouth.”
You know how they say, “Time flies when you’re having fun”? It should be “Time flies in Retrosweat.” Shannon is a fitness instructor with a difference. She’s not going to stand up the front and tell you to push harder, don’t give up. She’s not going to talk your ear off about how much she loves running. “People have taught themselves to like exercise but the fact is, if we didn’t have to, a lot of us wouldn’t do it.”
But wait, there’s more: “I’m genetically lazy. I’ve never been particularly passionate about fitness. I was an overweight teenager. For me, Retrosweat is the antidote. What drives me and my clients to sweat is a rad playlist of the best music the 1980s has to offer. When you’re dressed up and feeling fabulous and grapevining to Prince, you are transported. You're not thinking about your workout. Human brains work differently. Some people like to count reps and sets, which sounds like torture to me. I think in terms of verses and choruses."
Where is the future going to take you?
I’m envisaging a Retrosweat tour of America. I’d love to do a class on Venice Beach, and maybe in Miami. I’ve taught a class in New York before, years ago, so I’d love to do that again. I’ve been doing this for three years now so I’m used to walking out into the unknown with a boom box and going, 'I’m going to take a risk and see what happens'. All I need is a safe space to do the class, my voice and something to play music from. I can do it anywhere because it’s the people that create it.
by Amy Lovat
What came first, your love of retro or desire to start an aerobics class?
I’ve always worn bright colours and bright eyeshadow; I have a thing for big earrings. But I was never particularly '80s. I used to wear the more Madmen-style ‘50s and ‘60s look. I have all these beautiful dresses hanging in my closet that don’t fit me anymore because I do so much exercise I’ve dropped two dress sizes. When I started, I locked myself in my room for about six weeks and did so much research. Thank god for YouTube, because I went straight to the source. Jane Fonda ‘80s workouts. I took out anything they used to do then that’s dangerous now and started working on the routines. I was purely focused on the product. And as soon as I found the wig, the character came. Now I have five wigs on rotation. Over time I decided the structure of the class, organically, but at first I really didn’t know what I was doing. After a while I got more confident.
"I’ve done everything on a shoestring. It’s amazing what you can do when you’re determined and don’t have any money."
How long does it take you to prepare for a class?
I’ve got a huge repertoire of songs that I’ve created moves to over the last three years, and it’s all in my head. I look back and I don’t know how that happened. Something was driving me, I was determined. There are over 140 playlists now, I’ve kept them all. I’ve never done the exact same playlist twice. Never.
Retrosweat is a world I have created, using elements of the ‘80s. The way I approach teaching is the way I would approach a character. What was in fashion, what were people listening to, how were they talking, what words did they use, who were the politicians, who was famous? I enjoy that stuff as much as I enjoy teaching the classes.
Did you ever think you’d run a business?
Never. Business was not on my radar. And I never in my life thought it would be a fitness business. It’s far from what I thought I would be doing, but I’m doing now is the product of what I was doing at four-years-old. Bossing people around, making up choreography, ordering people into lines. That’s what I was doing in preschool, it’s in the report. It’s what I’m meant to be doing.
"I found need to be creative every day, constantly thinking of ideas, finding photos for social media, putting together outfits, researching the era. I need that constant creative expression or I feel a build-up inside me."
What is Retrosweat all about?
It’s almost like the underdog’s workout. With exercise, everyone has to push themselves to be motivated. I feel like Retrosweat stimulates your imagination first and that’s the key to the motivation. You think about what to wear, if you’re going to win best dressed, what moves will she do, what songs will she play. It’s an event you’re a part of and something to look forward to after work. The more I became the character the more I just fell in love with it. It was a natural progression of what was meant to be.
Do the character and real life blur?
Yeah. [looks wistfully into the distance…] Who am I...? It’s funny as soon as you’re in costume, people endow you with a character. And people ask how I’m staying in character and I’m like “I’m just being myself”. I’m probably more me in Retrosweat than anywhere else and I don’t know exactly why. It’s such a happy, motivating character too so it's a great place to go to on not-so-happy days.
What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
I think when people say something like, “Retrosweat helped me through a breakup”. It’s nice reminder that you never know what people are bringing into a room. What they could be carrying. If I can create a place to escape to, if only for an hour, it’s a powerful thing. Going to the movies, theatre, listening to a great song, it’s all escapism. We need that time to forget and live in fantasy. I also love seeing people’s bodies change for the better. Knowing it’s what I'm doing who has instigated and helped them to feel good about themselves is so rewarding.
Who’s the coolest person you know?
My friend Gemma O’Brien, the typographer and artist extraordinaire. She did the Retrosweat logo. She’s so talented and she’s a really positive gal. She has such a calming, laid-back energy. There’s also a chick in L.A. I haven’t actually met in person yet named Diana Joy. She runs an Etsy store called Electrikiss and sells 80s leotards online and in Los Angeles.. I saw her in a vintage shop in New York and stalked her online; now we follow each other on instagram. She’s next level. She’s fabulous. Her mullet is real. She sends me ‘80s pinup shots and once she sent me a care package with all this ‘80s stuff in it. We have a really funny relationship.