Long before I was born, my mom was a dancer. Growing up in the '50s and '60s, she studied jazz and tap before heading off to college. She soon launched her career in computer programming, and thought her dancing days were behind her—until the '80s came along.
The community center where she lived, near Louisville, Kentucky, started offering classes in a dance-based fitness craze: Jazzercise. Suddenly, my mom was slipping back into a leotard and pair of tights she'd held onto—remember, this was decades before athleisure—and meeting her girlfriends after work for a jazz dance exercise class. The career woman had reconnected to her dance roots and would continue taking classes for another decade.
But not everyone in those classes had dance experience. In fact, that was the point.
Recently, my mom and I had the Zoom meeting of a lifetime: Jazzercise CEO and founder Judi Sheppard Missett and her daughter, Jazzercise president Shanna Missett Nelson, hopped onto a video call to chat about the company's humble beginnings and how Jazzercise is still kicking today—51 years later, with 8,500 franchises in 25 countries.
Before Jazzercise was born in 1969, "I was teaching strict jazz dance classes," says Missett, now 76. She'd spent many years dancing with Gus Giordano in Chicago. "He was a huge mentor." Despite her professional experience, she wondered why people weren't sticking with her classes—so she asked them. "They would say, 'Well, it's a little too hard,' and 'We don't want to be professional dancers. We just want to look like one.' "
Missett transformed her classes. "I decided to turn them away from the mirror and I'd be their mirror," she says. She simplified the choreography, set it to popular music, and kept a jazz warm-up. Throughout class, she was nothing but encouraging.
When she moved to Southern California, the community embraced her classes. "It was like the body beautiful out here," she says, and before long, she was teaching 25 to 30 classes per week. Out of necessity, she started training others to help with the teaching load.
Judi Sheppard Missett and Shanna Missett Nelson at Jazzercise's 50th-anniversary celebration last year.
Courtesy Raindrop Marketing
If you've seen the viral YouTube compilations of Missett teaching, you know that she's an extremely animated instructor. (There's no shortage of phrases like "Come on and shake that cute, little booty of yours" and "Find that boogie body.") So I asked her if that was integral to training new Jazzercise teachers. "We still want our instructors to be animated and energetic and to motivate," she says. And, yes, she's aware that she's a bit of an internet celebrity. "Those VHS things have gone viral about a thousand times. That's an example of where we started. We're still motivational, but in a different way."
Oddly enough, the U.S. military helped spur the expansion of Jazzercise since many women from San Diego's military families were Missett's students-turned-instructors. "Then they were transferred to other parts of the country or other parts of the world, and that's how it spread nationally and internationally."
When Jazzercise started, the fitness landscape was barely existent, aside from weight-lifting gyms and a few quickly passing fad workouts. There wasn't much in the way of big–box gyms and boutique studios, and it was decades before other dance-based workouts like Zumba would hit the scene. Jazzercise filled a void for women. "We sort of pioneered that whole aspect of giving women permission to move, and to feel good about themselves in a physical way," says Missett.
But Jazzercise has moved far past its days of teased hair and brightly colored leos. Missett says, "We wouldn't be around for 50 years if we hadn't changed." Along the way, it's diversified its offerings to include classes like strength training, HIIT, kick-boxing, fusion and Dance Mixx, a dance cardio class based off the original Jazzercise workout. As president, Missett's daughter Shanna Missett Nelson is the 21st-century face of Jazzercise, overseeing programming and its digital arm Jazzercise on Demand, where she's also an instructor.
About five times a year, the mother-daughter duo gets together to choreograph a new collection of songs that are then distributed to its franchises. They remain the sole choreographers. To carry on the family tradition, Jazzercise will be streaming a free Mother's Day–themed class on May 10, led by Nelson and her dancer daughters, Skyla and Sienna.
Shanna Missett Nelson, president of Jazzercise, Inc. with her mother and Jazzercise founder, Judi Sheppard Missett. Nelson's daughters, Skyla and Sienna, are competitive dancers.
Courtesy Raindrop Marketing
At its core, Missett says that Jazzercise is still about helping people experience an art form. "We always try to stick close to our dance roots," she says, recalling how when she started, she got flack from some fellow professional dancers. "You're bastardizing the art form," they'd say.
But she saw things differently. "I would tell them: 'No, I'm teaching people to appreciate the discipline that it takes for a dancer to do what they do. And then when people go to a concert, they'll be able to really appreciate what they're seeing because they are experiencing some of that themselves in class,' " says Missett. "People know what a chassé and a relevé and all of those things are. And I'm proud of that, because my joy is dancing. I'm proud that I've been able to communicate that to a lot of other women."
Throughout our double-mother-daughter Zoom call, my mom beamed while hearing Missett's stories, which made me beam. And after all these years, she got the opportunity to thank Missett for creating a space for women to move—and for bringing the joy of dance back into her life.