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updated: 7/21/2014 7:08 AM

Jazzercise: Still evolving after 45 years

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  • Judi Sheppard Missett, 70, the founder of Jazzercise, leads a workout. Missett started teaching her dance-based workout program 45 years ago in the Chicago area.

      Judi Sheppard Missett, 70, the founder of Jazzercise, leads a workout. Missett started teaching her dance-based workout program 45 years ago in the Chicago area.
    Lawler Duggan/The Washington Post

  • Kristen Smith dances at a Jazzercise Live event led by Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett.

      Kristen Smith dances at a Jazzercise Live event led by Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett.
    Lawler Duggan/The Washington Post

 
By Vicky Hallett, The Washington Post

"I hear it," a woman proclaimed, and then darted down a hallway at the Washington Hilton. A tank-top-clad parade rushed closely behind, also drawn to the faint beat of OneRepublic's "Counting Stars."

The music intensified as they descended the staircase into the hotel's International Ballroom.

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On the other side of those doors awaited hundreds of women (and a handful of men) jammed together for the kickoff of Jazzercise Live.

It's part rally, part fashion show, with waving flags from several nations and attendees decked out in branded apparel. And it's all a celebration of the life's work of Judi Sheppard Missett, who started teaching her dance-based workout program 45 years ago.

The 70-year-old didn't need an introduction with this crowd, but the emcee gave her a pretty great one, anyway: "Our founder, our chief executive officer and the wind beneath our wings, Judi!"

In a sparkly top and high heels that accentuated her leggy figure, Missett welcomed the already sweaty audience. (Her daughter, Jazzercise President Shanna Missett Nelson, 45, had just warmed them up with a few fast-paced numbers.) Tonight, she explained, they were going to have a conversation.

"I thought I'd talk to you about how this all happened," Missett said, taking them back to 1969, when she was a student at Northwestern University and a professional dancer who taught jazz in Chicago. Women seemed to like her classes but wouldn't stick with them.

The reason?

"I was teaching like they were going to Broadway. And they were going to their class reunion," Missett said.

With simpler choreography, they'd feel better about themselves and keep coming, she reasoned. And she was right. The first class with this new format had 15 students. The second week, 30 showed up. The week after that, it was 60 -- and Missett realized she was onto something.

"It's important to change and listen to the cues that life gives you. Look where it led me," said Missett, pointing to the success of her now California-based company.

Thinking about how to evolve for the future has guided her business practices to this day, and it's why, she added, Jazzercise has some "big changes" coming in the next six months.

Missett and other higher-ups are mum on what exactly these will entail, other than some vague references to updated marketing materials. But the goal is easy to guess: attract more young people.

"Everybody knows what Zumba is. That's the cool thing right now," said attendee Laura McCabe, 38, a center owner from Kentucky.

Jazzercise has fantastic name recognition, but "people think of it as Grandma's or Mom's workout," she said. Jazzercise's blend of cardio, strength and flexibility is why McCabe looks better now than she did 10 years ago, but to most folks she meets, it's synonymous with "having a thong leotard up your butt."

And fighting that image is tricky, she added, even with members of her own family.

No one gets as infuriated by this state of affairs as Missett. The night before Jazzercise Live began, she sat in her hotel suite and laid out the problem.

"People think we're still doing what Jane Fonda did, even though, frankly, we never did that. But that's the perception," Missett said. "We wouldn't still be here. And I wouldn't be here because I'd be bored to tears."

Jazzercise distributes new music and moves to its 7,800 instructors every 10 weeks. Missett still picks each song from the latest releases, handles all of the choreography and tests her material on students firsthand by teaching nearly every day. Despite having churned out thousands of routines over the years, she said the process never feels repetitive.

"The kinds of movements I did in 1990 are different than today. Dance culture has changed, music has changed," said Missett, who noted that the science has changed as well.

To emphasize that Jazzercise is more than just sashays and single-single-doubles, the company launched five new workouts this year: Fusion (based on high-intensity interval training), Strike (with a kickboxing focus), Core (which targets the abs), and Strength45 and Strength60 (45 minutes or an hour of taking body sculpting "to the next level").

This slate is potentially a peek at Jazzercise's new direction, said Marianne Magee, 53, as she stood in line at the event's shopping expo to buy a blue crop top. Magee has been doing Jazzercise for 22 years, and so have many other women -- but even she doesn't see that as entirely a good thing.

"The age range is skewed. There are more 50-year-olds in a class than 20-year-olds," Magee said, and that makes it tougher to get younger folks to give it a chance.

Jazzercise's existing formula -- which Missett describes as "consistency but variety" -- is why so many people flew long distances and dropped a sizable chunk of change to come to the event in Washington. Decked out in red, white and blue, they looked like a political party. Their platform: Take one class, and you'll be hooked on Jazzercise forever.

Everyone in the crowd had a success story to share. For Rose Cain, 53, of Frederick, Md., Jazzercise has been a source of "instant friends" wherever she's moved. Her pal Lisa Brown -- and probably at least half of the other women in attendance -- raved about how it's led to remarkable weight loss.

"I've never felt better than when I do Jazzercise," said Brown, 30, who's dropped 25 pounds and counting.

Other instructors and enthusiasts gushed about how Jazzercise had helped them recover after cancer, continue to exercise after knee replacements and made their migraines vanish for good.

And then there was the incredible tale of Enas Bell. The 42-year-old from Falls Church, Va., was sitting out a strength-training song, not because she was tired, but because she couldn't see what was going on.

"Jazzercise probably doesn't even know they have a blind instructor," guessed Bell, who started with classes in 1997 when her sight was just starting to deteriorate. Her weight had ballooned, she'd never exercised and was nervous about triggering her asthma. It took her 10 classes to finally be able to make it through a full hour. But she did it, enjoyed it and has stuck with it.

Working as an instructor is challenging with her limitations, Bell said. She moved within a mile of her center so she can walk to work. And to learn the new routines, she has other instructors perform them directly in front of her. "I can't see faces, but I can see bodies," she explained. Every second of struggle, however, is worth it to Bell: "Jazzercise keeps me sane."

There's a danger in messing with the status quo too much. And there are factions within the Jazzercise world that would prefer the program rewind rather than fast-forward.

During the Q&A portion of the onstage conversation with Missett, one woman wondered whether it would be possible to bring back retro routines -- maybe "Eye of the Tiger," or some Paula Abdul songs.

Missett, in the gentlest way possible, shot the idea down. "Memories are great," she said, but you can't re-create them. Instead, she suggested, make new memories every day and "move in the present."

That's not just how she views Jazzercise, but also her role in it.

For now, Missett isn't ready to give up her day-to-day duties, but she thinks a great deal about her legacy. When she does decide to retire -- maybe to return to the performing career she put on hold in the 1970s -- her daughter is prepared to step into her dancing shoes.

And her 11-year-old granddaughter isn't too far behind. One of the new songs presented in Washington was the World Cup anthem "We Are One (Ole-Ola)," which the tween had choreographed for her middle school classmates.

Missett asked for permission to borrow the routine, which starts with some funky fist-waving.

Those next two generations "are my exit plan," Missett said.

That's certainly one way to keep Jazzercise feeling younger.

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