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Sandahl Bergman’s Body (1983)

Something that unites us all at Lady is our love of movement—Susan is a former ballet dancer and Laura a passionate fitness fiend. On Laura’s instagram (@laurakitty) she has often posted short clips from vintage workouts that are as appealing for their costuming and sets as they are for their health benefits. With our appetites whetted by these one-minute segments, Laura will now be showcasing fitness videos of the past in a new series for Lady. 

 

The release of the first Jane Fonda’s Workout VHS in November 1982 created an industry and a desire for a near-constant output of new at-home workouts. Previously at-home workouts were available as books or vinyl records with spoken instructions, while the 1970s had brought some fitness and yoga instructors on the air at local stations. With Jane already involved in the fitness industry—she co-opened a studio on South Robertson Boulevard in LA in 1979 as a fund-raising vehicle for the Campaign for Economic Democracy (a liberal political group founded by Fonda and her former husband, Assemblyman Tom Hayden), which was such a success that she published her first workout book in 1981—and a celebrity with an intimate understanding of fame and publicity, her foray into fitness home videos was perhaps unsurprising yet quite novel. Almost instantly the public wanted more—more Jane, more workout videos by Jane, more workout videos in general—and celebrities and trainers began flooding the market with videos of all styles, levels and quality. By 1987 over 15 million aerobics tapes had been sold, with Fonda’s accounting for 3.5 million of those.

Almost six feet tall, slim and perfectly toned, blond—Sandahl Bergman is deservedly described as “statuesque” in every article and review of her work. The Missouri native was discovered at fifteen, when Tommy Tune came through her Kansas town with a national touring company. Soon she found herself with an Equity card and an entrée to Broadway in the early 1970s, where she caught the eye of legendary choreographer Bob Fosse. At age 20 he cast her as a replacement dancer in Pippin, a musical directed and choreographed by Fosse that premiered on October 23, 1972. She then went on to perform in Gigi in 1973, Mack & Mabel in 1974, and A Chorus Line in 1977, as well as Bob Fosse’s musical revue Dancin’ in 1978. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of Dancin’ is perhaps where she honed her highly attuned body and technique—“The 18 cast members get a real workout… In the traditional musical, there’s a lot of non-dancing going on between numbers… But in this musical, there are no breaks between numbers, and dancers must change style with the dizzying speed with which they squeeze out of one costume and into the next.” All of her hard work was paying off—by 1978 the luminescent blonde’s only non-dancing job ever had been a brief cocktail waitressing gig—and an appearance the following year in Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film, All that Jazz, brought her to the attention of the masses. Sandahl incandescently lit up the screen as a featured performer in the "Air-otica" sequence, which Newsweek described as “the most high-voltage, blazingly erotic dance sequence ever filmed.”

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Dancing onto the screen next as one of the nine immortal Muses in the opening number of Xanadu (1980)—clad in a lavender milkmaid-esque dress and a foot taller than the other muses—Bergman seemed set for movie stardom. Leaving NYC and Broadway, she settled in Los Angeles and started the somewhat tortuous routine of going on auditions. Within the year she was cast opposite in Conan the Barbarian—upon walking into the audition the director and screenwriter John Milius exclaimed, “I think we’ve found our Valeria!” Based on 1930s fantasy stories published in pulp fiction magazines, Conan’s Valeria was a pirate, adventuress and the finest swordfighter in the world of those tales. Due to her height, the production team was unable to find a stunt double for her—leaving Sandahl to complete all the highly technical stunts herself, an experience she called “strenuous but rewarding.” Though she was chosen for the role due to her dance background and high level of body control, for four months prior to filming she studied with a martial arts master to refine her fighting techniques. Schwarzenegger said at the time, “We trained together and learned to move together. She’s so incredibly graceful. We even fought one another as a means of practice to better fight the others.” Sandahl was described as moving with “great kinetic grace” in the fight scenes in Conan the Barbarian. The high intensity six-month shoot in the snow and searing heat of Spain paid off as the film grossed more than $100 million at box offices around the world when it was released in 1982 ($300 million by 2007 including home video sales). Bergman even won a Golden Globe for her performance—new female star of the year in 1983. 

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Sandahl’s appearance as an Amazonian warrior in Conan the Barbarian, in She (1984) and in Red Sonja (1985) and as a bodybuilder in Getting Physical (a 1984 TV movie in which she helps a slightly overweight and lost girl find inspiration and focus through weight training) shifted the public understanding away from her as a lithe dancer to that of a muscled Valkyrie. At first this was a concept that Bergman celebrated: "We're used to thinking of women as delicate. But I think that's changing. I think the '80s are becoming a very physical time. Girls are getting into muscles, rather than just being soft and feminine." Though her body was more lean than built, her reputation seemed set—articles throughout the 1980s on the rise of female bodybuilding and the “loss of femininity” always drew her in as an example. Though a Hollywood casting director described her as the “perfect” physical package in 1987, Sandahl and her management team found her to be typecast and somewhat ostracized due to her supposedly overly muscular body. Her workout video from 1983, Sandahl Bergman’s Body, was one of her efforts to shift the perception of her. Though advanced, and high priced—it originally sold for $39.95 ($100 today, when adjusted for inflation)—the tape was a hit. Combining ballet, jazz moves, stretches and strengthening exercises, the video is all done without weights—the only equipment necessary is a chair for one section. Twelve segments, each roughly five minutes long take you through: an all over warm up, posture & balance, stomach, coordination, buttocks & thighs, running, ballet, calves & thighs, waist, arms, heart & lungs, and a final floor stretch. Sandahl is lean, fit and effortless as she moves through dance combinations that are almost impossible to follow (at least for a non-dancer, like myself). It’s fun though—even if the high kicks and complex footwork are beyond you, most moves can be broken down and followed at a slower speed to start (no modifications are provided). Watch her for her beauty, her ease, her ever-changing skintight workout clothes. 

Having endured multiple injuries while dancing and doing stunts on set, Sandahl became increasingly interested in safer, less damaging forms of exercise—running was off limits and she focused her dancing on several carefully selected routines. She also advocated walking as a good low intensity workout: “I like it because it’s a form of meditation. A time for me to think. And I get fit at the same time”—a very 2019 sentiment, though the weights she carried on her walks have since been dismissed by physical therapist as damaging to joints. In 1990 Sandahl led the The Firm Aerobics Workout with Weights, Vol. 3, which I still consider one of the best and most effective weight workout videos available. In an ornate setting—complete with Roman statuary and Oriental carpets—she leads a group of hard bodies in complimentary hued leotards through rigorous intervals of stepping, weight lifting, isometrics, light aerobics and plyometrics. 

Throughout the 1980s and 90s Bergman continued to act in low-budget films, but since 2003 she has seemingly retired from TV and movies. Sandahl continues to dance and sometimes appears at Hollywood sci-fi and fantasy conventions where her striking beauty, fearless grace and power are still remembered and celebrated.