Fitness Pioneer : Aerobic Dancing Grew Into a Profitable Business in San Diego

Aerobic dancing is a household word these days. But the hybrid form that blends the benefits of exercise with the fun of dancing didn’t even exist until 1969, when Jacki Sorensen pioneered the program on an Air Force base in Puerto Rico.

Buoyed by the fitness craze that swept the country in the 1970s, Sorensen’s aerobic dance program exploded into a multimillion-dollar business after she learned the ropes about running family fitness programs from physicians at the Alvarado Medical Group in San Diego.

Now, Sorensen’s aerobic dance empire extends to more than 1,500 cities in the United States, Japan, and Australia. But, as the vivacious California-born dancer said in an interview at her ocean-view home, aerobic dance evolved from a quirk of fate, not from any master plan.


“I never decided, ‘I’m going to go into the exercise business.’ I trained as a dancer and was dancing professionally by the time I was 16. But I knew I wasn’t really a dancer ,” Sorensen said, smiling. “I was a hard worker. That’s the thing I brought to the party--persistence.”

After a year, Sorensen ditched her plans for dancing professionally and enrolled at UC Berkeley, earning a BA in social science and getting together with Neil Sorensen, the man she still refers to playfully as “my first husband.”

Sorensen returned to dance when her husband joined the Air Force in 1965 and was running dance schools wherever they were stationed. When the couple ended up in Puerto Rico during the late ‘60s, however, the plan had to be scrapped because someone else on base had jumped the gun on the dancing-school business. It was then that Sorensen “sort of fell into aerobics,” as she tells it.

“I had been running dancing schools, teaching tap, ballet, acrobatics--even ballroom dancing--and putting on recitals, until we got to Puerto Rico,” she said. “But, since they didn’t need me to teach dancing there, I was asked to run an

exercise program for the wives at the officers’ club.”

Sorensen applied the same tireless work ethic that landed her a job as a dancer into developing a fitness regimen to appeal to the Air Force wives.

“I didn’t want to do a boring exercise program, so I said I’d be happy to research it and see what I could come up with,” she said.

Among the books and pamphlets Sorensen pored over to create the course was the first Air Force program of aerobics, written by Dr. Kenneth Cooper.

“And it changed my life,” Sorensen said, with the exhilaration and fervor of a true believer. “Dr. Cooper was saying that Americans don’t know what fitness is really all about. They’re worrying about the little muscles in their inner thighs, when they should be worrying about the most important muscle--their hearts,” she noted, leaping up from the sofa to drive home her point.

“I realized then that the reason I was so fit was because of my dancing and my choreography. It was always being energetic and upbeat. But I didn’t want to make the course intimidating to non-dancers, so I included a lot of hopping, skipping and walking--things we all did as a child.

“I choreographed some simple routines using tap dancing, a little can-can and other dance styles, fast music--very upbeat--and I didn’t make everyone work at a high level. Everyone could work at their own level.”

To facilitate learning the choreographed routines and avoid embarrassing any of her self-conscious students, Sorensen taught the class with her back to the participants.

“I’d tell them, I’m not facing you, so you don’t have to do anything that’s too high-level for you. And then they’d say, ‘I can do that.’ I saw that exercise could be fun. The ‘no pain, no gain’ theory is a fitness myth. We don’t preach, but we instill a happy optimism, and we’re dancing to music.”

Sorensen credits her mother--"a combination of Mary Poppins and Auntie Mame"--with giving her a kind of contagious optimism that she passes on to her students and which inspired her to create a revolutionary pop exercise.

“At that time, everyone else was doing exercises on the floor,” Sorensen said. “But I knew I couldn’t get these women to do that kind of exercise. This seemed like a viable alternative, and, when I contacted Dr. Cooper and told him what I was doing with my aerobic dance program, he cheered me on.”

Soon after, there was an offer from an English-speaking television exercise show in San Juan.

“That’s how I got from a dancing school into an exercise show,” Sorensen said. “I would go to the station and record eight television shows at a time, because it was far from the base. Even when Neil decided to leave the service, I stayed in Puerto Rico to get some more shows in the can. I couldn’t walk away from it.”

Although fitness programs were beginning to gain momentum by the time Sorensen tried to establish her aerobic dancing program in New Jersey, where they lived after leaving San Juan, she still faced tremendous resistance.

“Everywhere I went, doors were shut in my face,” she said, with strong traces of bitterness and disappointment.

But Sorensen’s entrepreneurial spirit had been kindled by then, and she was determined to find a way. With her special brand of tenacity, Sorensen hounded the YMCAs and park recreation programs for a place to put her program to the test.

“I knew I was right, and whether I was going to make it in business or not, I was not going to be discouraged by other people. I kept telling them to stop the boring calisthenics, get the women off the floor, and start doing something for their hearts--and finally a YMCA director in Maplewood let me have a church basement for two hours a week.

“Only six women showed up, but after the 12-week session was over, my students said they had a surprise for me, and they did. Each one brought at least two friends, and the enrollment began to grow.”

The real turning point for Sorensen’s aerobic dance program came when she attended a clinic given by Drs. John Boyer and Fred Kasch of the Alvarado Medical Group in San Diego.

“They were very famous,” she said. “In fact, they wrote the first fitness book that made any sense. I really learned a lot from them about running fitness centers, and then I decided to open my first West Coast center right in San Diego.”

By 1975, the aerobic dancing organization had burgeoned enough to warrant Sorensen’s husband to quit his job and join the family business.

“I handle most of the business end,” said Neil, “and she makes all the artistic decisions. We run it together.”

Although they live in the hills above Malibu now, their speech is laced with references to San Diego.

“A lot of things started for us in San Diego,” Sorensen said. “We put on the first dance-a-thon ever in San Diego. Some of my instructors came to me and said, ‘We’ve improved so much with your help, now we want other people to feel good about themselves, so let’s put on a dance-a-thon in San Diego.’ That hadn’t been done before. We also did a walk-a-thon for the heart fund in San Diego.”

The San Diego chapter of the American Heart Assn. rewarded Sorensen’s efforts with the Diamond Heart Pin in 1978.

When the Old Globe was destroyed by arson, Sorensen and her San Diego staff jumped in to help raise funds to restore the venerable old playhouse.

“It was one of the first benefits we had, and we were really heartened by it,” said Old Globe spokesman Bill Eaton. “It was a fabulous, fabulous success, and they raised thousands of dollars for us. Jacki did the whole thing too--the promotions and everything. We couldn’t believe it, but suddenly all of these aerobic dancers seemed to come out of the woodwork to show their support.”

Although Sorensen has been honored by several prominent organizations, she said she is proudest of the National Honor Award for her contribution to physical fitness from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Sorensen served as a clinician for the prestigious council for six years and still is a consultant on physical fitness and sports.

In addition to choreographing more than 150 aerobic dance routines a year, Sorensen has managed to author two books--"Aerobic Dancing” and “Jacki Sorensen’s Aerobic Lifestyle Book"--and crank out several successful records and home videos.

“I’m not trendy or faddy,” she said, referring to the plethora of new techniques that vie for dominance in the lucrative health and fitness market. “I have a new low-impact aerobic dancing video, but we’ve always encouraged people to work at their own level. That’s why it’s fun. You can walk it or run it. Just keep a high degree of optimism and joy.”

Lately, Sorensen said, she has been too busy with behind-the-scenes work to stay abreast of the day-to-day activities of her aerobic dance program across the country. She hopes to change all that soon.

“I like to work with my students in a hands-on capacity. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss that. It’s important to train dancers and raise money for charity, but you get energy from working with your students, and San Diego is one of the first places I’m going.”