“I need to look like I’ve stepped out of a time machine.”

The ‘80s are back and it’s come to teach us how to be bold again. Meet Shannon Dooley, creator and founder of RETROSWEAT, the authentic ‘80s Freestyle Aerobics class that has people packing studios in droves. Appearing regularly on the Morning Show, working with Wrangler and marching proudly with her SWEAT community at this year’s Mardi Gras is just the beginning. Her reach is considerable, having just filled classes in LA thanks to her Instagram following. For class-goers, getting trim, taut and terrific is the icing on the cake—what the class really brings to the party is magnetic.

Small business owner Shannon Dooley dresses loud and talks fast (“once you get me going I’ll bloody chat for hours”). She meets me in Clovelly for coffee, dressed in a RETROSWEAT limited edition Merch sweater, patterned pants, big orange earrings and volume (plus) hair. She’s bloody fabulous. She’s a NIDA trained actress, graduating in 2007, and has keenly applied her understanding of creating a character to make herself the convincing and loveable canvas. The RETROSWEAT front woman uses style as a form of theatre both in class, and in her daily life: part Jane Fonda, part ‘80s Australiana fitness fanatic.

From world events, to music, to fashion, she immersed herself completely in ‘80s sights and sounds to create an uncanny ‘80s world that people can believe in. It’s specific purpose: joy, liberation and authenticity: “the job is to tell the story. So I become the character, tell the story and invite everyone into my world and show them how great this happy, simple, pre mobile phone, pre Instagram life is. Life was slower. I think the ‘80s was the last decade of naïvity. From my research, people were hopeful and optimistic about the future, technology was exciting. Debbie Harry said, “here comes the 21st century, it’s gonna be a lot better for a girl like me.”” Innovatively, the class calls on the past as direct commentary on how far we’ve come in the present, and whether it’s bettered us or not.
For me, it’s about authenticity. You can wake up every morning and reinvent yourself, aesthetically and externally. That excited me. For some people clothing and accessories mean absolutely nothing, they’re just things preventing you from being naked. For me, it’s an opportunity to put on a show.

Shannon Dooley

Six years ago, Shannon’s preoccupation with scrunchies and cardio wasn’t as well received. However Shannon remained unfazed—something held her to pursue it despite being considered passé. She started by booking a room at the Redfern PCYC every Tuesday night, then using Facebook and early Instagram to connect with her network of friends, community first. The first class had ten people, the second had six, the third had eight. She took the guesswork out of building choreography by watching every VHS tape and YouTube video in existence, structuring the narrative of the class with arcs of heart rate. She looked up, and had locked herself in her bedroom for 6 weeks, studying Abs, Buns and Thighs. But it worked. Numbers consistently grew, people brought friends, she introduced the Michael Jackson birthday week and the Madonna-thon. However, despite her online following she’s not in it for the numbers, and emphatically warns that if one becomes obsessed with ‘like’ based approval, it will set you off course almost immediately: “stay connected to your true North.”
Even if it’s humorous, or even if you do look larger than life, it takes the ego out of it. Having to walk to class dragging a heavy boom box behind me along Campbell Parade in Bondi with a scrunchie in my hair and in leg warmers, that’s sort made me immune to people judging me or thinking that I’m unhinged. It’s not about that. It’s to brighten someone’s day.

Shannon Dooley

Music, fashion, TV, film are all harkening back to a time where the hair was higher, dreams were bigger, music was iconic and your dad had a mullet. Shannon maintains that despite the colour, frivolity and extremities of the time, the essential attitude and philosophies of ‘80s life are needed now more than ever. “All eyes were fixed on the Millennium and there was a hope for the future. I’m a child of 1984, and I feel like our parents were popping us out and giving us Museli Bars. There was an innocence. I think having that zeitgeist as the RETROSWEAT energy in the room makes people feel like everything’s going to be okay. Essentially, that’s what the world needs right now. People are worried, people are scared about the future. There needs to be places were people can go, whether it’s an exercise class or it’s therapy or it’s meditation, where people feel safe and feel connected to other people. And feel loved. It’s basic human needs. So the veil of RETROSWEAT is colour and frivolity. It may look shallow from the outside. Trust me, it’s not.”
For those who look at a treadmill with dread? Shannon understands this dilemma well, describing herself as naturally lazy person. She made the class accessible for all, and as a personal motivator to stay healthy while boosting her mood. She found an electric alternative that wouldn’t perpetuate isolation in any way, for anyone: “I do have a gym membership. I do feel the difference in this big corporate gym environment, where no one knows each other’s name, no one helps each other, people push to get their spot in the room. In my class, no one would dare do that. Everyone takes care of each other. The people that my class attracts are incredible people. People feel welcome. People come in for the first time and even if they’re nervous to begin with I physically see their bodies relax. Whereas in other gym environments, I’ve seen women who can tell another woman is new and they just tell them they’re in the way. I think that’s the difference between big business, and small business. Community.”
“Everyone is absolutely allowed. You can wear anything to RETROSWEAT, anything you’re comfortable in. Some people dress up, some don’t. It’s a free for all.”

Shannon Dooley

As it stands, there are 3 classes, 3 nights a week, in Redfern, Randwick and Surry Hills. She’s working on getting classes to Melbourne (after being flooded with invitations), an active wear line, and continues to have open conversations with her community via Instagram to constantly update and improve: she’s just started to live stream. ‘Retro Flow,’ a Yoga program, is also in the works as an accessible relaxation workout to your favourite ‘80s love ballads (see Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’). And despite finding a formula that works, Shannon claims that five and ten year plans simply don’t apply, that ‘you can’t assume anything’ without directly communicating with the consumer.
“It’s the heart and the soul in it. You get out what you put in, and I’ve put blood, sweat, heart and soul into this and I do believe that people can feel that.”

Shannon Dooley

Advice? Shannon kindly reminds us that defining oneself is a trap, and only attaching ourselves to product-based outcomes is unwise. She explains, “I make a point of not classifying myself as anything, other than a multi-potentialite. That’s what I would call myself. This is the age of the multi-potentialite. I remember Bowie saying in an interview, with these Australian journalists back in 1982, they asked, “so you’ve just done this movie, does that make you an actor now, as apposed to a musician or a song writer?” Almost forcing him into a corner to make him choose, to classify himself as someone who does one thing. And he said, “No, I’m a generalist. I do lots of things. If I describe myself as a generalist it means I don’t put myself in any box and I can do anything now or in the future. Just because I paint a picture, I wouldn’t call myself an artist.” So, I try to live the same way. Remaining open.”
Visit the happiest place on the internet here.
Book your class and get updates here.
RETROSWEAT will be hosting NYE In the Park Festival, check it out here.

Words by JB Keogh
Photography by Daniel Stelmaszak


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