Joanna Rohrback, the founder of Prancercise, LLC, is not afraid to talk about the elephant — well, camel — in the room. “I didn’t even know what a camel toe was when I started reading the comments,” she laughs. “But some people online got really caught up.” Beyond the frontal wedgie, the original Prancercise video is rife with titillation. There are the background instrumentals, which sound like the lovechild of a Saved By The Bell interlude and an insurance company’s hold music. A verdant park looms in the background, trees swaying ominously. Then there’s Joanna, the tiny, grinning woman with the horse-inspired moves and kooky rhyming instructions. “We’re gonna really cut the noose and let it loose with the Prancercise gallop!” she says shortly after the two-minute mark. Who could look away?
When the video went viral in May 2013, Prancercise became a pop-culture sensation. Rohrback made the media rounds, strutting her stuff with the Today's Al Roker and Natalie Morales, Dr. Oz, Steve Harvey, and Daniel Tosh. Two months later, Rohrback starred in the official music video for “Paper Doll,” a song John Mayer reportedly wrote about Taylor Swift. “John Mayer’s people said he happened to be watching my video with the music off while working on the song and he started synchronizing with my steps,” Rohrback says. “The location fell through, so we filmed on some side street. The lines they gave me were last minute, right on-site. I had no idea what the heck they were talking about!”
At 61, Joanna Rohrback had finally been discovered. She filmed commercials for Wonderful Pistachios and Bull Smoke e-cigarettes, participated in Bud Light’s Whatever, USA brand event, and made a guest appearance on Glee. Of course, Rohrback's first brush with fame was also a crash course in internet infamy. Comments about her age and physical appearance rolled right off her back. It was the parodies that bothered her. “Competitors mocked me,” she says. “People with an agenda mocked me. Some people just wanted to be in the limelight with me. They weren’t using proper Prancercise technique, that’s for sure.” Prancercise may look funny, but it’s never been a joke to its creator. Rohrback, a fitness enthusiast, developed the workout in 1989 while strolling down Florida’s Hollywood Broadwalk and listening to Motown music on her Walkman. The low-impact steps felt natural and fun, more like grade-school recess than a regimented aerobics class. She remembers drawing more than a few stares as she found her footing — and not caring one bit.
Rohrback worked on a book about Prancercise from 1989 to 1992, but set the manuscript aside when she became the live-in caretaker for her mother, who died of advanced Parkinson’s disease in 2003. Then, Rohrback experienced nearly a decade of her own health struggles, suffering a complicated uterine fibroid condition that led to hemorrhaging. After being hospitalized and a number of blood transfusions, doctors recommended major surgery. Rohrback was afraid she’d never recover. “I’ve always believed in simple, natural solutions for health issues,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for a quick fix that wouldn’t even fully treat my illness.” Rohrback studied alternative medicine and prayer homeopathy and drastically changed her diet and lifestyle in a self-healing regimen. As her health slowly returned, she made a plan. “It was a do-or-die situation,” Rohrback says. “I had just turned 60 and could finally Prancercise again. If I didn’t get the book out soon, I probably never would.” She had a website designed and self-published Prancercise: The Art of Physical and Spiritual Excellence in October 2012. Then, she hired a videographer named William to film a short tutorial that might help book sales. He suggested putting it on YouTube. Rohrback agreed, even though she’d never heard of the site.
In an age of athleisure, Rohrback's Prancercise outfits are a sort of athluxe. She wore dangly earrings, a shimmery statement necklace, and a business-casual zipper cardigan in the first video. “The filming was very impromptu,” she remembers. “I needed something to match my white sneakers, so I wore my white pants. I didn’t have a leotard available, so I grabbed that pink top.” It was one of the windiest, rainiest days Coral Springs, FL, had seen in awhile, but Rohrback refused to postpone. With William’s help, she uploaded the video on Christmas Day 2012. After a few months without any significant response, she concluded it was a bust. But everything changed on May 28, 2013. When the number of views began to skyrocket, Rohrback initially assumed there was a computer glitch.
Competitors mocked me. People with an agenda mocked me. Some people just wanted to be in the limelight with me. They weren’t using proper Prancercise technique, that’s for sure.
The transformation from internet n00b to viral celebrity was full of growing pains. For starters, the video racked up 7.5 million views before being monetized. Rohrback had no other social media presence, so imposters swarmed like gnats. There was no publicist or agent to help manage the barrage of phone calls and media requests. The traffic spike crashed Prancercise.com repeatedly and the web developer demanded more and more money to fix it. Rohrback was completely out of her element, but she never lost her confidence. Instead of attributing her sudden fame to luck, chance, a slow news week, or perhaps all three, she starts the pitch. “I think Prancercise went viral because it was something that people had never seen before,” she says. “It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s liberating...” But she doesn’t take herself that seriously. Camel toe may have something to do with it, too. Rohrback's second video, released in July 2013, cheekily dismissed haters and imitators with the disclaimer “The content may be disturbing to immature or prudish viewers.” About a year later, her third video was filmed among grazing horses at Peaceful Ridge Rescue in Davie, FL. This time, she had a partner in prance: a man in zebra-striped pants with a jiggling bulge. Rohrback swears she didn’t plan it. “I directed the video and wrote the lines, but I didn’t tell him not to wear support!” she laughs. “That was all his own doing.”
Rohrback's getting pretty good at this internet fame thing. But these days, she’s keeping a low profile and does most of her Prancercising in front of TV news. The last few years have been stressful and difficult on her health, but she has no regrets. “Even if the first video never went viral, I’d still be happy that I followed my dreams,” Rohrback says. “People can knock Prancercise, but I know I did it from the heart. You're never going to please other people all the time. But I've inspired a whole lot of people, and that's just fine with me.” Prancercise.com now offers certification courses and Rohrback makes the occasional appearance, most recently in a commercial for Google’s OnHub router and the U.K. TV show World Of Weird. She occasionally daydreams about her next video. When asked who her dream co-star would be, she lights up. “You’ll never guess in a million years,” Joanna says, mysteriously. “Brace yourself: Pee-wee Herman. He’s a character and I’m almost like a character. He’s very bubbly and positive, has this childlike way about him, and is quite fit for his age. I could see us doing something marvelous together.” So could we.