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An inside look at Jazzercise, the ’80s exercise phenomenon that’s still going strong

An inside look at Jazzercise, the ’80s exercise phenomenon that’s still going strong

Jazzercise is all about feeling goodJazzercise is all about feeling good — Photo courtesy of Jazzercise

Before there was SoulCycle or Zumba or Pure Barre, there was Jazzercise.

But if you’re picturing a bunch of moms in leotards and leg warmers, you obviously haven’t taken a class in the last few decades. A pioneer of the fitness industry and widely acknowledged as “the original dance party workout,” Jazzercise is still going strong – and, more importantly, making women (and men!) strong – more than half a century later.

Today, Jazzercise blends jazz dance, Pilates, cardio kickboxing, resistance training and yoga in fast-paced routines designed to improve cardiovascular endurance and increase strength and flexibility. What hasn’t changed in all these years, though, is its effectiveness – a 50-minute class can burn a whopping 800 calories – and the brand’s determination to make it fun.

Thanks to an ever-changing soundtrack of top 40 hits from everyone from Pink to Dua Lipa, Jazzercise has stayed current and relevant, and it’s found a way to keep reluctant exercisers from watching the clock. In fact, the average client ends up staying with the program for seven years, which is astonishing in an industry where people are constantly dropping out. So what is it about Jazzercise that makes it so different from other workouts?

Self-proclaimed Jazzercise junkie Barbara Ellis Cargill did 300 classes in 2020 aloneSelf-proclaimed Jazzercise junkie Barbara Ellis Cargill did 300 classes in 2020 alone — Photo courtesy of Bob Cargill

“It’s not boring like the gym, and no one judges you,” says Barbara Ellis Cargill, who’s been doing Jazzercise in Acton, Massachusetts almost every day, including the last trimester of her fourth pregnancy, since 1996. “It’s fun to dance with women of all ages and body types. Jazzercise is so uplifting and positive and it clears my head from the day’s stress within 20 seconds of the first song. It’s definitely made me stronger and more confident.”

Founder Judi Sheppard Missett, now 77, stumbled upon the secret to success when she was teaching dance classes in Chicago in 1969. “I noticed people would come to one or two classes and not come back,” she remembers. “I wondered if it was me. So I called a few students, who told me the classes were too hard, that they didn’t want to be a dancer – they just wanted to look like one. I decided to turn my students away from the mirror and have them mirror me instead, using simple jazz dance movements and lots of positive motivation. That first class, I had 15 students. The next class, I had 30. The next, it was 60. It just grew from there.”

The class was originally called Jazz Dance for Fun and Fitness. But, in 1977, a former student suggested changing the name to Jazzercise to reflect the mix of jazz dance and exercise. “I went right home and set about trademarking the name,” says Missett. “It then burst into a movement.”

Although it also went on to spur a slew of competitors, its customers remain loyal and Jazzercise now offers more than 32,000 classes every week in 25 countries. All of its instructors go through a certification process, and the vast majority were inspired to teach after taking classes themselves.

Shanna, Judi and Skyla: three generations of Jazzercise womenShanna, Judi and Skyla: three generations of Jazzercise women — Photo courtesy of Jazzercise

“I became a Jazzercise instructor because it was the most effective workout I had ever tried,” says LaVonne Favors, who’s been teaching in Maple Grove, Minnesota for 12 years. “Our longevity and customer results are unmatched in the health and fitness industry.”

Adrienne Lee Menichini, a 26-year instructor in Southland, Texas, agrees, adding, “I believe Jazzercise is special because it’s a serious no-judgement zone. We take pride in welcoming all different fitness levels, dancers and non-dancers into our studios. You can sense our community. It’s just contagious.”

One instructor, Shanna Missett Nelson, even went on to become President of the company. The daughter of Judi Sheppard Missett, Nelson has been at the helm since 2010 and is excited about taking Jazzercise into the future.

“We’ve grown digitally faster and more successfully than I ever could have dreamed,” she says. “We started Jazzercise On Demand for our former customers who moved to areas without Jazzercise locations and also to reach a whole new generation. We started small, with 30 videos. Now the platform has hundreds of workouts and tens of thousands of subscribers. It’s exceeded our hopes in under two years and we’ve got big plans for it moving forward.”

Shanna Missett Nelson, President of JazzerciseShanna Missett Nelson, President of Jazzercise — Photo courtesy of Jazzercise

Because of this, Jazzercise was able to livestream classes online during the pandemic – something they’re planning to continue even as classes start up in person again – and grow their On Demand platform by 247% last year alone.

“We’ve transformed technologically, so we’re light-years ahead of where we were just two years ago,” says Missett, who could never have envisioned any of this when she founded the company pre-internet. “I’m a big believer in change, though, and Jazzercise has always been changing.”

What the three generations of women leading Jazzercise – Nelson’s daughter, Skyla, was recently certified as an instructor – have done for their clients goes far beyond fitness. Philanthropy is woven into their business model and they’ve empowered thousands of women around the world to start their own businesses. At one point, Jazzercise was declared the second-fastest-growing franchise – behind Domino’s Pizza.

“Jazzercise is effective and fun – it’s truly the best of both worlds,” says Toni Pitruzzello, who’s been teaching in Carlsbad, California, home to Jazzercise headquarters, for 11 years. “We work hard and, thanks to the great music and dance-y moves, feel like Beyonce. We walk out of class like we run the world.”

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