I tried working out with Richard Simmons dance tapes

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 4:21pm

This week, the Daily put three Arts writers to the test: they were told to pick a subject they could immerse themselves in, and then write a first person narrative about their experience. You can read the other pieces in this issue here and here.

I was born in 1995. I only know of Richard Simmons through parodies, self-parodies and commercials, so when I decided to try out a new exercise routine and write about it in the name of journalism, the little I knew about this character was a driving factor in my decision to choose his tapes. Thanks to the Internet, there are a couple full-length Simmons videos on YouTube, not in the HD quality we’re used to but in the nostalgic look of tapes from the ’80s. I was originally going to follow this routine for a week, but I figured I should focus my analysis on the full-length tapes available for free (hey, I’m a college student), instead of stumbling through disjointed clips.

Day One: Aerobics with Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes

When I started this video, I wasn’t really sure what I expected the Silver Foxes to be. Some svelte figures in metallic jumpsuits were about what I had in mind. But alas, the Silver Foxes were not blondes in high ponytails, but instead the 70-odd-year-old parents of famous figures from the ’80s: the mothers of Farrah Fawcett, Sylvester Stallone and Simmons himself, as well as the father of Al Pacino. Immediately, I knew I made a huge mistake, but I had made a commitment, so I proceeded on my journey with the Silver Foxes.

First thing’s first — Richard Simmons doesn’t mess around. Maybe there was something in the water in the ’80s, but I could barely keep up the movement of my feet when paired with enthusiastic clapping and hip shaking. Mrs. Stallone had this thing down pat, looking like a goddess in a peach sweat ensemble.

It hadn’t even been 20 minutes of the 50-minute video (read: 17 minutes) when I realized I desperately needed a water break. This is coming from a girl who does hot Bikram yoga twice a week. I’m telling myself this has more to do with the large plate of sushi I had eaten a couple hours earlier that stripped me of the moisture in my body than with the vivacity of the Silver Foxes. It was also around this time that I realized Sal Pacino looked too much like the father of an ex-boyfriend for my comfort. My concentration was in a shaky place, I needed the wisdom of Simmons’s perm to bring me back.

25 minutes in. Another water break. But I was starting to get why these videos were so popular. So soothing. So visually pleasing. I’d love to find a way to have Richard Simmons’s voice and positive energy inherent in my daily life.

I don’t know if it was the jazzy music, the matching velour jumpsuits or the ever-smiling faces of the Silver Foxes, but I had a great time doing this video. I’ve never taken a formal aerobics class, so I can’t say how this video compares to a class for those born in the later half of the 20th century, but I definitely worked a bit of a sweat. Some of the exercises were incredibly goofy, like the “rump bends” that looked undeniably like humping the back of a chair. But honestly, the Silver Foxes were everything to this video. Immediately after it ended, I had to look up what happened to Jackie Stallone, hoping she was still doing high knees somewhere. However, I wish I hadn’t. It looks like old Jacks filled up too much of her later years with bad plastic surgery and a role on “Celebrity Big Brother.” RIP to the image of that goddess in the peach sweat suit I briefly knew and loved.  

Day Two: Sweat and Shout

I have a confession to make: I took a three-day break between the first workout and this one. My workload was insane, and my sleep levels were subpar, so exercise fell to the wayside, per usual. But after things settled down, I settled back into Simmons.

This second tape starts with a much more flamboyant Simmons backed up by a gospel choir singing, “Shout!” Before I could gain my composure, the dancing starts. Already, this tape is 100 percent more intense than anything the Silver Foxes could keep up with. The new cast of supporting dancers is brightly clad but definitely secondary characters to Simmons’s fabulousness. I’m not sure if it’s a year difference (I couldn’t actually find the year this video was made) or the absence of septuagenarians, but Simmons definitely expressed his famous personality in this video more than the last. After some research, I learned that Simmons has never actually confirmed his sexuality, squashing my uninformed belief that he was some sort of gay icon.

Again, I kept messing up the quick movement changes while the backup dancers kept up perfectly, which led me to question how many times they had to practice this one-hour routine without cameras. What if someone in the back messes up? Do they have to film the whole thing over again? This tape has literally no breaks, Simmons powers through one hour of intense dancing without slowing down at all. This tape is also significantly more difficult than the Silver Foxes — I’m sorry I doubted you, Richard. The oldies soundtrack naturally made me want to dance, and I’m sure I could have reached euphoria if I weren’t concentrating so hard on keeping up with the moves. Like the Silver Foxes video, there were some weird humping maneuvers, this time done with less stable eye contact with the camera and more vivacity, echoing the younger cast of the background dancers. Other moves had names like “sweating ponies” and “sham shammies.” Your guess to what those are as good as anyone’s.  

The video’s name did not lie. I did sweat, but I did not shout because my roommates were home and would have been concerned if I had. However, I was very out of breath by the time the cool down period started. Doing weird stretches with my arms while the gospel choir sang (they came back just for the end) was oddly satisfying, and I felt a spiritual connection to the higher being which is Richard Simmons. My potential soreness the next day was left to be determined.

Day Three: Disco Sweat—How to lose 15 pounds in two weeks

When I stepped out of bed this morning, there was an unmistakable soreness in my quads from my sweating and not-shouting the day before. Now with a definite sign that these workouts actually do something, I culminated my three-day experiment with what sounded like the hardest Simmons workout YouTube has to offer — one that guaranteed I would lose 15 pounds in two weeks, though never actually specified how often these workouts had to be to accomplish this. Once a day? Twice a day? I’m unsure.

This time, instead of being a recluse in my bedroom vigorously dancing alone, I set up the HDMI cord in the living room and did the workout with my roommate, an actual dancer. Though the tapes were fun alone, they were definitely more exhilarating in a group setting; I was no longer afraid to sing along to the music or “whoop” when Simmons did.  This was the most difficult of the Simmons videos, and my keeping up with it was more than debatable.

We made it a little more than halfway through the video, slightly after the dance routine to “I Will Survive,” when my roommate had an epiphany: “I HAVE to show you this workout video I used to do with my mom in our living room.” And with that, Richard was hijacked and replaced with Billy Blanks’s TaeBo workout. Richard, I’m so, so sorry. But if your videos intentionally had a twinge of humor, TaeBo was unintentionally the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. The background music, clearly made for this specific workout, made me feel like I was in a video game. And though I’m sure I would have gotten a fantastic cardio workout with the mix of martial arts and aerobics, I genuinely could not stop laughing when Blanks would yell, “DOUBLE TIME,” and the room would go inexplicitly dark and the movements were twice as fast, looking like a fever dream. We only made it about halfway through TaeBo when we both called it quits, and I left with an unmistakable guilt toward the spirit of Richard Simmons.

While I can’t say if I’d voluntarily elect to do Simmons dance tapes on a regular basis again, I understand why people do. They’re fun, positive and make you feel good about yourself. While I’m not sure if you’d actually lose 15 pounds in two weeks, you probably could over a greater length of time, because holy smokes, if you put all your energy in it you can sweat bullets doing these. I’m glad I did my little experiment, but I think I’ll stick to hot yoga after all.