Jazzercise: The Beginnings Of A Fitness Craze

Culture | August 29, 2021

Source: (Pinterest).

Jazzercise was born after second-wave feminism was underway, and it helped to revolutionize fitness for women; its impact continues to be felt today. Prior to the 1960s, in the 1930s, there was a “figure salon” in Chicago which invited women to “soothe the nerves and tighten the curves,” but businesses like this one were owned by men and held “ladies days” which existed mainly to keep the proper distance between men and women. By the time Jazzercise was born, women’s liberation was transforming old ideas about women’s bodies and fitness. It was the right time for Judi Sheppard Missett to begin her business. Women like Jacki Sorensen developed “aerobic dancing” and Lydia Bach imported Lotte Berk’s barre workout from London, but it was Jazzercise that really caught on. 

Source: (YouTube).

It Began With A Young Dancer

Judi Sheppard Missett founded Jazzercise in 1969, although it was originally called Jazz Dance for Fun and Fitness. Missett, who was born pigeon-toed, danced from a young age, after her mother took her to a doctor to correct her stance; the doctor suggested that her mother should enroll her in dance classes. Thus, she began dancing and continued after her graduation from Northwestern University. She taught classes in suburban Chicago, but her retention rate was low, and she wanted to know why. The response she received changed her approach. As she found out, the students informed her that they didn’t want to be professional dancers; they just wanted to look like professional dancers. She had her students turn away from the mirrors so they were not focused on form. She also simplified routines, used new music, and used positive encouragement to keep her students motivated. 

Source: (Yahoo).

Empowering Women And Their Bodies

When Missett moved to San Diego with her husband Jack two years later, Jazzercise really took off, but it was about more than exercise. It became a place for women to wear comfortable clothes and meet new friends and seemed to inspire women to take additional steps in their lives, like pursuing higher education or going on their first solo travel journey to a Jazzercise convention. For some, jazzercise became a road to financial independence. As she first started the program, she taught 35 classes per week on her own, which was especially challenging because she had to shout over the music and keep the beat. Eventually, they found she had developed nodules on her vocal cords and was told that she needed to do something different or she would lose her voice permanently. At that point, she cut back to teaching 12 classes per week. As the business continued to grow, she decided to get a loan but was denied as the bank thought that Jazzercise was going to be a passing fad. However, it continued to expand, and this was prior to social media. Missett claims that expansion was due in part to military women, as San Diego was a military town. When they left for other parts of the country, they brought their enthusiasm for the exercise with them.

Source: (Discogs).

Turning It Into A Phenomenon 

Missett created a certification program, and the women who loved jazzercise became brand ambassadors. With video recorders entering the marketplace, they could record the movements and learn them more easily. Jazzercise continued to expand, and by 1982, it was in almost every state and a few countries; there were more than 1,000 certified instructors. She then began to franchise the business, which helped to encourage women to start their own business, and at one point, it was the number two most profitable franchise in the country. In the 1970s. Misset released her first book, offering advice on exercise clothing and specific exercises.

Source: (WCBI).

Its Impact Is Still Felt

Jazzercise is still around, and its impact has helped to shape women’s fitness today, as it helped to give rise to the boutique fitness craze; however, this exercise craze does not require a lot of fancy equipment and is often practiced in rented spaces. It continues to be a success on its own in this competitive market with 8,500 franchises in 25 countries. Corporate continues to be comprised of all women, and Missett’s daughter became the president. Missett continues to teach a couple of classes per week. It has changed since the early days though, with more contemporary music like hip-hop and techno, as well as more contemporary moves. 

Tags: exercise | jazzercise | Judi Sheppard Missett

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Linda Speckhals


When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.