Longform

The Prancercise Lady Copes With the Dark Side of Internet Fame

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Prancercise® now belonged to the masses.


Months of silence later, on May 25 in East London, a ponytailed bloke named Edwin Stratton, who was once the drummer of the prominent English band One Minute Silence, was scrolling through the Reddit subforum "WTF" when he saw an image he'll never forget.

An anonymous user had posted the image of a book cover, which showed a white woman hovering above green fields aside a galloping white stallion. It was absurd. He loved it. "The cover was superb," he tells New Times. "So I looked for a video on YouTube, which I was delighted to find actually existed."

At 1:14 a.m. that night, Stratton tweeted the Prancercise® video to British comedian/blogger Robert Popper, who had blogged about a new Estonian fitness routine called "Horsebic" that, incredibly enough, also impersonates a horse's mannerisms. Popper watched the clip of Rohrback prancing through the Tamarac country club, thought of Horsebic, and blasted a quick post on May 27. "Prancercise® is some kind of special!" he croons to New Times.

Things then happened very fast. Lauren Kirby, a young brunet who freelances at Buzzfeed, saw the video on a private Facebook group with her friends. "And when I saw it, I knew it was viral material," she says. On May 28, Prancercise® materialized on Buzzfeed, under the category "Because Yes." The website Videogum, fecund ground for many bloggers, also punched in a story that day, and Prancercise® went supernova. (Even New Times got into the mix, on May 29, heading our take: "Florida Woman Invents Insane 'Prancercise.' ")

At the time, Rohrback was closely monitoring its rapid progression from her one-story hovel in the "Coral Springs area." "At first, I thought it was some kind of mistake," she says. "But then I saw the Huffington Post had written something, and I knew it had gone viral." Rohrback contends her video took off "because of the uniqueness of the program; no one had ever seen such movement." And while there's no denying that, the additional reasons for its popularity are much more complicated.

To understand what made Prancercise® go bang on the internet, one must first understand that today, sharing is everything. Videos, stories, songs — anything that makes us feel something — serve as carrier packages of raw emotion that we parcel to our virtual community. We delight in spreading the content as though it's hot gossip.

"We're in the business of getting people to feel primal emotions that don't require a lot of thought," says Gawker's viral wizard, senior editor Neetzan Zimmerman. "That's where the money is. With a video or an image, you're going above words into the very essence of the reader and hitting them directly in those areas where they can't control. And people share [content] when those emotions are triggered."

Especially if certain "arousal emotions" — anger, awe, anxiety, or humor — are stimulated, a University of Pennsylvania professor named Jonah Berger wrote in 2011 after scrutinizing the emotive impact of the most emailed articles from the New York Times. The internet, his research suggests, has become a modern means to satisfy ancient social instincts. Words and long stories (like this one) are lousy vehicles of feeling, but short videos and pictures that can isolate one pure emotion? Boom.

In the past two years, viral videos have amassed such global import that they've shaped nations, anointed stars, and initiated worldwide manhunts. Two springs ago, Invisible Children disgorged a video explaining how Uganda's former tyrannical president, Joseph Kony, conscripted 66,000 children into military service. The short documentary triggered sweeping outrage, netted more than 100 million views, and marshaled a worldwide movement calling for Kony's arrest. (He remains at large.) Or Rebecca Black became famous overnight when her YouTube video for the song "Friday" garnered millions of views in 2011. Her song — derided as the "worst song ever" by E! — led to real-world record sales but also death threats and mockery. (Just last week, Black released a Miley Cyrus cover and grabbed fawning reviews from the Huffington Post and MTV.)

In Joanna Rohrback's case, the driving emotion was pure humor — but were people laughing with her or at her? "OMG this is just so wrong it's right!" bleated one commenter on Buzzfeed. "The wig, the camel toe, the awful music, let alone the prancing! Thank you so much; I needed this laugh!!!" Another wrote: "the Prancercise gallop hahahahahah." Within a day or two, the YouTube parodies started rolling in. The spoof "Prancercise From Head to Camel Toe!" featured a blond comedian named Beth Hoyt living in Brooklyn. "This is about finding your inner camel toe," Hoyt admonishes, gyrating in blue spandex. "It cannot be too big. Improvise if you have to. I used socks. It helps work your inner thighs."

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Terrence McCoy