‘It’s a form of armour’: ’80s lovers embrace the power of the leotard

If an exercise class is doing well in Sydney, people might expect it to branch out to Newcastle, or Melbourne. But, not one to do things by halves, Shannon Dooley has just returned to Australia after bringing her "Retrosweat" workout to an unexpected new market: Ibiza.

"I've had a lot of margaritas in the past month," the NIDA-trained performer laughs.

Shannon Dooley’s ’80s-inspired Retrosweat workout has proven popular among both Millennials and those who remember the craze the first time ’round.Credit:James Brickwood

Known for her bright leotards and (impossibly) brighter personality, Dooley draws a loyal crowd to her classes at Waterloo and Surry Hills each week, where they dance to the sounds of the Pointer Sisters and Bananarama in an authentic '80s aerobics workout.

"There's a bunch of baby boomer ladies who are like 'thank god this is back', and that is a huge compliment," she says.

Her online popularity (the Retrosweat account has 35,000 followers on Instagram) attracted the attention of Ibiza's new Paradiso Art Hotel, which will now host classes with a local instructor.

Dooley started teaching Retrosweat classes in 2011, after she graduated from a full-time musical theatre course and lost the workout of putting on shows each term. (She still performs, most recently in the Australian premiere of American Psycho the Musical at the Hayes.)

"I was faced with getting on a treadmill or going for a jog and, for me, that was a pretty horrifying experience," she says.

A Retrosweat class in Waterloo.Credit:James Brickwood

Instead, Dooley, whose mother was a choreographer, created a workout she knew she would enjoy.

Despite the '80s being over before her sixth birthday, Dooley says her love of the decade comes from "somewhere deep in [her] early childhood psyche".

Shannon Dooley says women can view a leotard as a ‘form of armour’.Credit:James Brickwood

"I've always been obsessed with David Bowie, and Prince, and the androgyny and the shoulder pads; just the risk-taking of the age," she says.

Her Retrosweat persona is largely herself ("me in the best mood possible"), although she approached the process like she would a character. She watched countless Jane Fonda videos and, with no capital at her disposal, realised the easiest way to market her fitness classes would be to turn herself into a walking billboard.

"Instead of being like 'oh, I'm setting up a business, I'm a business person', I really made a one-woman show, in which the audience are participants."

Of course, a big part of that show is Dooley's own aesthetic, which comprises an impressive vintage leotard collection she sourced online, as well as a range of wigs (Dooley was diagnosed with alopecia at 17).

"There's something very powerful about the leotard; it is almost like a superhero suit," she says, adding that many of the women who first attend her class think they could never wear such tight workoutwear … until, after a few weeks, they do.

"There's a liberation in that, of not hiding," she says. "I just think it's the most beautiful thing to see a woman owning herself.

"It's not about the male gaze, it's a form of armour."

After her European summer, Dooley is turning her attention to merchandise. Last week she released a capsule collection of '80s inspired workout wear, cut from original vintage patterns.

"I'm constantly asked where to get stuff, but there is nothing," she says.

Eventually, she hopes to have the funds to put together an old school, Richard Simmons-style workout VHS. An actual VHS? No, she admits, probably just to stream online.

"I want people to actually be able to use it."

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