Longform

The Prancercise Lady Copes With the Dark Side of Internet Fame

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"My life had changed forever," she says. From then on, from failed romances to addiction to illness, she overcame a sometimes rocky life nurturing an unwavering belief that she, Joanna Rohrback, had been destined for something profound and beautiful and unusual. And that something was Prancercise®. "I've never had children," she sighs — but not mournfully. "It's just me and three feral cats. Prancercise® is the only baby I've ever had. I'm all alone, and I have no support system."

But then she brightens. She always brightens. "I've been alone a lot in my life, but I've never been lonely, you know? There's a difference."

Rohrback, who graduated with a health sciences degree from Florida Atlantic University in 1978, quit her job as a Broward County realtor soon after the Prancercise® discovery. All she could think about, restless inside her beach studio, was her invention. She conducted it every day for at least an hour, taking years to hone its every gesture and kick. The discovery of Prancercise® was extemporaneous, she admonishes, but its beauty took work.

"For a long time, Prancercise® was kept under wraps," says Rohrback's longtime friend Joyce Brobeck, a massage therapist in Fort Lauderdale. "She's a very private person, and she was always worried about people stealing it... She had the keys to the Hilton Gym [on Hallandale Boulevard] and only came in early and late. I didn't see the whole thing until she showed me and the others outside of the gym. It was beautiful."

Rohrback doesn't like elucidating how she survived those years. "Do people need to know everything about me?" she asked New Times, pausing. "It was credit cards and savings." (Brobeck mused that Rorhback's father, who worked as an attorney in New York and died young, had left her well off. Rohrback denies that theory.)

She also kept Prancercise® hush-hush. In 1994, she moved in with her mother, who'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's, in Coral Springs and furtively wrote her book, which became equal parts instructional manual and memoir. But she couldn't find a publisher who understood its vision, and as her mother melted into sickness, both the exercise and written work languished. "She took care of her mother all by herself," friend Josie Marinello, 94, remembers. "She has two sisters, but they didn't volunteer anything; all of the pressure was on Joanna." Rohrback no longer speaks to her sisters.

Rohrback's mother died in 2004, and in the aftermath, the Prancercise®-er developed a severe "feminine condition" that she mentions frequently but almost aggressively declines to identify. She was too sick to find consistent work, she says, and became a regular, then a high roller, at casinos across Broward. "I couldn't Prancercise®!" she erupts over a bottle of Fiji Water inside a darkened VIP chamber at the Isle of Capri. "I couldn't be creative; what else was I supposed to do? ... I lost a lot of money. In five years, there was only one when I actually made any money."

Then, with Rohrback once more at her lowest, Prancercise® again galloped to the rescue. In 2011, her feminine condition began a slow remission. "I healed myself," Rohrback explains, declining to elaborate. Soon she was prancing the beaches of South Florida, teeth agleam. It was time, Rohrback thought, to take this thing public — with or without the publishers. So that fall, she got her trademarks and put up an advertisement on Craigs­list asking for help designing her book cover.

"We met at a Dunkin' Donuts," remembers Eric Gzimalowski, a blond 26-year-old photographer in Coral Springs. "She said she wanted to get some photos of her, quote, exercise routine. She was very, very confidential and never once used the term Prancercise®. It was crazy."

It got crazier. She pushed across the table a tizzy of legal documents. "It was some sort of documentation saying I wouldn't sign or steal or sell or copyright anything from her book. She was very, very strict. I was dumbfounded, and then I signed it."

Rohrback's directions for the cover of her book were specific: She wanted clouds and fields and horses. And at the center of the idyll, she directed Gzimalowski to superimpose photographs of her squeezed inside spandex and anklets, mid-Prancercise®. "She said she wanted her movement to be whimsical. I wouldn't say she's controlling, but she's a woman who's extremely passionate about Prancercise®." She paid him $150.

On a cloudy winter day soon after, Rohrback enlisted a tanned Miami cameraman named William Brito, who climbed into a golf cart at a country club in Tamarac and shot Rohrback Prancercising under the palm trees. "We're gonna really cut the noose and let it loose!" squealed Rohrback, trotting in white tights. "Let's stop talkin' and do some walkin.' Afterward, she chose a four-chord rock song to accompany the video, and then, on Christmas Day last year, it went live on YouTube.

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Terrence McCoy