Text by Laura McLaws Helms
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.
I was first introduced to Callanetics in probably 2005 or 2006—a particularly dark time in my life, which is likely why the arrival of that VHS into my life is so memorable. With their leotards and tights, the demonstrators were unmistakably 80s but their movements were a far leap from those of Jane Fonda’s famous tapes and those of her copycats. All about small, low-intensity muscle contractions, the exercises were almost imperceptible—yet when I tried them out I found them to work on a deep level. I was hooked.
Callan Pinckney started her life as Barbara Bifflinger Pfeiffer Pinckney, a ninth-generation Savannah debutante. Described as having been “suspended from every school she attended”, she quit college after two years and then took a job in a department store (much to her parents’ consternation) to save up money for a grand trip. As legend has it, late one night in 1961 she threw a suitcase out her two-story window and climbed out after it, then took a bus to Wilmington, NC, where she boarded a freighter bound for Germany. For the next eleven years she traveled the globe, carrying all her worldly possessions on her back—and in the process crippling her already curved spine (she was born with scoliosis). Once home again and unable to move, Callan began to develop exercises she hoped would help ease her pain: “Then one day I looked in the mirror and saw what the exercises had done for me.”
Having changed her name to Callan in 1972 on the advice of a numerologist, she named her new discovery “Callanetics”—promising “exercises that melt fat off of buttocks and hips, flatten the tummy, slim the thighs” she started giving classes first in client’s home and then from the late 1970s in her New York penthouse apartment. Word spread and soon celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Ellen Burstyn were visiting her. After the success of the Jane Fonda's Workout Book in 1981, Callan saw her entrée into wider fame. A 207-page book on Callanetics was released in September 1984 to little interest at first—though the first printing of 10,000 sold out in three weeks, the media had little interest in talking about an exercise program without a celebrity star or any aerobics. Callan persevered – booking her own book tour around the south and constantly showing her stack of growing stack of fan mail to her publishers. After a fan in Chicago requested help making sure she was doing the exercises correctly, Callan asked for her assistance getting on TV—the desperate fan pleaded her case to the producer of A.M. Chicago who booked Callan on the show to demonstrate her program. In the first hour four-hundred people called to try to order the book, and Callan’s star was made—she subsequently appeared on a number of more popular syndicated talk shows, which pushed her sleeper book onto the best seller list. Within two years it had sold 2 million copies.
Articles in the 1980s marveled at her trim 5-foot-1, 108-pound late 40s body—tight without an ounce of fat on her. It’s unsurprising then—with her best-selling book, fit body and success on TV—that Callan next released a workout video in November 1986. Both the book and the VHS promised to make the exerciser “10 years younger in 10 hours”—quite an assurance, and one that proved to sell videos and attract controversy. For all the exercisers who adored her low impact, back friendly movies, there were a number of “experts” who stated her claims were outlandish and untrue. One exercise physiologist quoted in the Calgary Herald remarked that she “promotes some fallacies” when claiming that her waist, arm, thigh and buttocks exercises will reshape those areas as her exercises are not aerobic enough to burn off any excess fat that usually leads to misshapen areas. Callan, to her due, never said anything about burning fat—her tiny movements tone, lengthen and (more than anything) lead to better posture. She believed the issue was loose flesh rather than excess weight and that was what she chose to attack. According to Pinckney, “Callanetics defies gravity. If you combine it with a weight loss program, a 10 lb. weight loss will look more like a 20 lb. loss.”
Perhaps the best description of Callan comes from a 1991 article in the Colorado Springs Gazette: “The vivacious inventor of Callanetics preens as she walks barefoot across the plush carpet. Her freckled knees are fat-free, her stomach is flatter than a Weight Watcher's frozen pizza, and her bottom is, well, a granite peach.” Archly ambitious, she was not above forcing interviewers to touch her rock-hard bottom and ripping apart Jane Fonda’s aerobics tapes. There was an oft-published about enmity between the two women, who both sought to discredit the “safety” and results of the other’s workout routines.
Over the years she released a number of other books and videos that focused on helping beginners, advanced exercisers, specific body parts, or were organized by time of day. In the midst of this she set up a franchise for Callanetics studios and introduced a proper teacher-training program. Studios were opened across America, in the UK, Belgium and Switzerland, but due to poor management the Callanetics Franchise Corporation was closed in 1994. Perhaps also the teeny movements of Callanetics did not appeal to a larger mass of people used to fast-paced aerobics and sweating—a 1994 article in Harper’s Bazaar likened watching a Callanetics class to “watching an Andy Warhol movie of people sleeping—it appears the students are simply lying still for a long time on a plush, powder-blue carpet.” Classes in the New York franchise were also an astronomical $25 in 1994, which translates to a still hefty $43 today. With the closures of the company and all studios, a 55-year-old Callan decided to retire and Callanetics started its slow fade into cult obscurity; she passed away in 2012. T
So, does it work? I’m going to go with yes. Though maybe it won’t transform you into a new person in ten hours, what exercise program can truly do that? But it does work. Those who loved it then, still really love it—after I was first introduced to Callanetics in 2005 I found a very busy community of Callanetics-obsessives on the Video Fitness forum. Over the years a number of post-Callan Callanetics DVD’s have come out (some made by her company, others unaffiliated) and recently Callanetics.com has started a streaming website that continually uploads new workout content—though they do also stream all of Callan’s original videos. For me, it will always be about her videos—the tinkling music, the rainbow of leotards and her very firm but motherly commands have become a huge comfort. She always said that Callanetics is like “meditation in movement,” and for those of us who are true fans it really is—such tiny movements require such an intense focus that there is really no space left for any other thoughts. While it might not exhaust in the same manner as weightlifting or dance cardio, if you are doing it properly you will feel totally worked out yet rejuvenated. It’s quixotic, it makes no sense, but it does seem to work—and if nothing else, Callanetics is a big FU to the current fitness industry’s push that everything must be harder, faster, more scientific. Sometimes it feels really good to do some teeny movements and stretches in a leotard. If that appeals to you too, I recommend starting with the original tape or Beginner’s Callanetics in order to perfect the form, but then moving on to Super Callanetics for the true burn and magic. Luckily all of them are still available on DVD!