Tease your bangs to gravity-defying heights, tie a flannel shirt around your waist, and cozy-up with your favorite fat-free snack as we take a look back … and possibly get a glimpse at the future.
It’s indisputable that 90’s fashion is currently experiencing a vigorous revival. Everything from Mom jeans, crop tops, headbands, track pants, overalls, combat boots, and bomber jackets are back on the shelves, in magazines, and on Instagram. Not convinced? Lululemon is now selling hair scrunchies. Case closed.
Movies and TV shows from the 90’s are being remade (Fuller House, Clueless, The Craft, The Lion King, First Wives Club and Little Women, to name a few), and 90’s music styles are being heard in artists such as Bruno Mars, John Legend, and Khalid. Trance, techno and electro-punk are all reemerging on the electronic dance scene, and I’m told that Nirvana-esque grunge music, complete with guitar riffs, lots of drums, and screaming vocals is currently finding new life, one fringe band at a time.
So, what is it about the 90’s that we’re suddenly finding appealing? Is it even possible to define a whole decade in a few words? Ten years is, afterall, a significant period of time. I started the 90’s as a highschool student in NE Ohio, and ended it as a married attorney in Tampa, FL. A lot can happen in a decade.
The 90’s were a time of national economic prosperity. The stock market did what the experts said it would, and wealth universally increased. We ushered in the decade by watching the Berlin Wall fall, and the fear of the Cold War, that had loomed for decades, literally vanished almost overnight. The devastation of the AIDS epidemic continued in the early 90’s, but we also watched as science tried and tried again to find a vaccine and a cure, and by the time the decade was over, significant advances in treatment had been made. The Gulf War started, but it felt surreal since we could watch it on TV during the evening news. The severity of what was known as The Video Game War wasn’t understood by most until much later. South Africa dismantled apartheid, and although it was a long time in coming, from the other side of the world, it seemed to happen swiftly and peacefully.
We religiously tuned in to shows about nothing, notably Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Friends, and we made sure to be home to turn on the TV before they aired, because there was no such thing as a DVR. Cell phones weren’t a thing, texting wasn’t a thing, and, at the beginning of the 90’s, the internet wasn’t a thing. When I arrived at college in 1992, I balked at the price of a desktop computer, and briefly wondered if I really needed one. Once my dorm room computer was set up (it took up all of my desk) I followed the printed directions the school bookstore gave me to set up my campus email address. Why someone would send a message over the computer rather than call on the phone to actually talk didn’t make any sense at the time.
It’s not that there weren’t challenges in the 90’s. Besides the above, we had The Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, the World Trade Center bomber, discrimination of all kinds, and, maybe, the smallest hint of the global warming crisis to come. But, we were in between the Cold War and the War on Terror, the economy was good, cafe culture, and the coffee that comes with it, was popping up everywhere, and personal style could be anything from Courteney Love to Rachel on Friends. We had technology, but not too much, and still, generally, enjoyed talking to each other. Civility, mostly, was still the rule. Record numbers of women entered Congress.
The challenges of the 90’s seemed surmountable. Problems seemed to have solutions, even if they hadn’t been found just yet. The instability of the era was felt, but our feet felt solidly on the ground.
In the wellness arena, the exhaustion of the calorie-counting of the 1970’s and 80’s finally wore us down. Someone told us that the only thing we needed to worry about was fat intake, and, relieved, we tossed our calculators and dutifully eliminated all fat from our diets. This compulsive nutritional discrimination was made easier once nutrition labels were required by the FDA in 1994. “Fat-free” meant “guilt-free” and we doubled down on pretzels, pasta, potatoes, bagels, gummy candies and all the foods that aren’t naturally fat-free, but became fat-free thanks to copious amounts of added chemicals. Better eating through science became the norm.
By the end of the decade we had begun to see the errors of our chemical-laden, fat-free ways, and the high-protein South Beach Diet took off. Many of us enthusiastically welcomed cheese back onto our crackers, but I’ve never been able to look at mayonnaise the same way again!
Gyms across the country continued to offer hi/lo aerobics well into the 1990’s, but we started adding a little style and fun to the choreography. Whereas the 1980’s classes and videos had been all about sweating as much as possible (soooo many calories to burn!) we decided that the 90’s was a good time to start having some fun with our workouts. The clothing remained more or less the same, as athleisure wasn’t yet a full-blown fashion force. Leotards and spandex still ruled, at least in the early 90’s, but colors went unabashedly neon.
The boy bands exploded on the music scene and, together with the music videos put out by Madonna and Janet Jackson, informed how we all wanted to move. The straight-up seriousness of the earlier decade’s grapevines and step-touches gave way to subtle changes with big impact. Some hips here and there gave a ball-change transition a little Latin flare. (Zumba, is that you?) A few counts to let the shoulders do their own thing, a tilted head and an irreverent expression, all kept people’s attention and kept us from taking ourselves too seriously.
Reebok’s Step Aerobics hit the fitness scene – hard – in the early 90’s and pretty soon gyms were buying plastic steps and risers in bulk quantities. Adding vertical capacity to an aerobics routine seemed to propel choreography into the stratosphere of limitless possibilities. We worked hard but it seemed like so much fun we didn’t even notice. Launching over that step felt like flying and catching some air helped the sweat dry. I taught step aerobics for well over 10 years and I loved every second of it!
Taekwondo met aerobics in the 90’s and TaeBo was born. Billy Blanks took the workout video market by storm with his martial arts-meets-fitness techniques that required no special equipment and could be easily done in the living room. He led a generation through series after series of kicks and punches, and we all had delusions of being super-badass because of it. Many of us started teaching a few phrases of TaeBo inspired choreography in our classes and clients ate it up. You know that cardio kickboxing class at your local gym? Yeah, thank the 90’s.
The 1990’s also introduced us to the Thighmaster, the Body Slide, 8-Minute Abs, and a workout video by Cindy Crawford, featuring the supermodel in a bathing suit on the beach, tossing her hair around in the breeze while doing various mobility and strength exercises. I have friends who swear that it was Cindy’s video that started them exercising. She isn’t particularly engaging in the video, but the workout is solid and we learned that hard work pays off.
We started to really enjoy exercising in the 1990’s. We started thinking outside the box of what had been the accepted ways to exercise (jog, lift weights, Jane Fonda videos), by allowing some character and personality to play. Moving in new ways felt good and trying new things with our workouts and our bodies made us feel like we could do anything. There was enough variety in the fitness world for more people to be involved. You don’t like aerobics? No problem, how about boxing? You don’t like boxing? Not a problem, here’s a plethora of new home fitness equipment to try.
Perhaps it’s that sense of possibility that has us yearning back to the 1990’s. It was a time of relative stability and peace that had us believing that the future was not only wide-open, but also under our control. In looking to our past, we inform our decisions for the future. That desire and willingness to spice up our group fitness classes in the 90’s absolutely paved the way for the Zumba and cardio-kickboxing classes of today. The ability to think of taking group fitness up off the ground with step aerobics likely had an impact on bringing aerial and suspension training to your nearest gym or studio.
I fully expect more specialized group classes to emerge. And as we continue to feel nostalgic about a simpler, less plugged-in time, meeting others at gyms and studios for face-to-face interaction will only increase in value.
So, this year at Momentum Fest, come and join me in a whole class to pay homage to the 1990’s. I have a DJ friend mixing a set of the best of 90’s dance music and we’ll have SO. MUCH. FUN! We’ll move the way we moved in the 90’s, trying some of everything. Hi/lo aerobics, step-inspired combinations, TaeBo, music video dance moves, we’re going to do it all. Don’t think you can groove to the music? Or be trusted to go the right way at the right time? I promise you, you can. This class is solely for fun! No dance knowledge or experience is required. And, if you simply want to show up, listen to the music, and make friends, that’s welcome, too!
Emma Kumley, JD, PMA-CPT and certified GYROTONIC® Trainer, has been teaching movement for 25 years. She began teaching group fitness classes as an AFAA certified instructor after she finished high school. One husband, one law career, and four kids later, Emma finds herself as the owner and operator of The Movement Studio in Oxford, FL, where she teaches Pilates and the GYROTONIC® Method. Her personal movement journey has evolved from early ballet and modern dance experience to group fitness and corporate gym overdose to the balanced gratitude that is born of boutique fitness studio ownership. This evolution has taught her that physical fitness should be a way to love your body, and she advocates for moving whenever and wherever you can!