In a throwaway scene last season on Glee, Gwyneth Paltrow teaches a local Jazzercise class dressed in a shiny leotard and neon headband. It’s true that the dance aerobics format founded by Judi Sheppard Missett became a national phenomenon back when those kind of workout duds were in style–in the ’70s and ’80s—but it remains popular today, with more than 32,000 classes taught each week in every state and 32 countries.
Each Jazzercise class lasts 60 minutes and incorporates cardio, strength training and stretching—all set to popular music, from Britney Spears to Bob Dylan. Missett still choreographs the majority of the routines. Her daughter, Shanna Missett Nelson, became president of Jazzercise, Inc. in 2010 and has been teaching for 22 years. We asked Nelson what a newcomer should know before stepping inside a studio.
Spry: How was Jazzercise conceived?
Shanna Missett Nelson: My mom never meant to start a business. She was a dancer who taught classes at Northwestern University in Chicago. She noticed a lot of people quitting—this was the late ‘60s, when exercise wasn’t emphasized the way it is now. She was teaching very technical classes, and she had an idea to make dance more simple and easy to follow. So she began to teach that type of class in the basement of the dance studio, where there were no mirrors, and it was a success.
In the ’70s, my family moved to Southern California, and that’s when Jazzercise really took off, in part because that was the time and place where fitness became an industry.
Spry: You mentioned “no mirrors,” and that is one big way Jazzercise is different from a traditional dance class. You’re facing the instructor, but you can’t see yourself. Was that a conscious choice?
SMN: Yes, that’s definitely part of the philosophy. Our facilities don’t have mirrors unless they can’t find a location without one. If there are mirrors, you tend to compare yourself to the instructor or other people in the class instead of being in the moment and enjoying yourself.
Spry: How familiar should someone be with dance before trying out Jazzercise?
SMN: There’s no dance background required. A lot of our instructors are former dancers or cheerleaders but we also have instructors who had never danced before. There is a learning curve like with any movement class. I’ve started doing yoga, and I find myself looking around, trying to learn.
In Jazzercise, we do use technical dance terms—like chassé, relevé, arabesque—but we have a section of the website where you can learn the basic moves and practice in the privacy of your home if you want to.
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Spry: How complicated are the routines?
SMH: For our choreography, we try to follow the structure of the song. So there’s a set of moves for the verses, another for the chorus and then if there’s a bridge sometimes there’s something different. But the same moves repeat throughout the song, so you know what’s coming up.
Spry: I think a lot of people may not realize that Jazzercise uses very current music. Has that always been the case?
SMN: Yes, we have a new set of songs every 10 weeks. I think it’s just what we always did. It makes sense—everybody wants to dance to the latest songs you hear on the radio. We also believe in using the original music. Other classes will use knock-offs or remixed versions, or speed up the rhythm. But we always use songs in their original form and don’t worry about beats per minute. All that’s important is getting your heartrate up!
Spry: How is the cardio section structured?
SMN: We follow the aerobic curve that’s widely used. The idea is to get your heartrate up quickly, get to the peak, stay up there for a little bit and then come down slowly.
Spry: Another thing that might surprise people is that nearly half of a one-hour class is devoted to strength training. Has that been part of Jazzercise since its start?
SMN: Yes. Years and years ago, my mom used to use ropes and beach balls before there were tubes and resistance balls! I can remember going to the hardware store with her, and tying the ropes. Now we use handheld weights and resistance tubing.
It’s an important part of overall physical activity, for women especially. You’re creating strong bone density. We also really wanted to give women a class where they can get everything done in an hour. I have two young ones and I don’t have a whole lot of time. If I can get both cardio and strength training in one class, that’s what I need.
Spry: How many calories are burned in a typical class?
SMN: You can burn up to 600 calories a class. It depends upon the intensity and how hard you want to work, but most burn between 500-600.
Spry: How adaptable is the class for different fitness levels?
SMN: All of our instructors give a low-impact option for moves as part of every class. We also offer some classes that are all low-impact. But you can always modify the moves to do whatever you need to do. Some days I can fly through class, and others I think, “Is there cement in my shoes?” So you always have to listen to your body. Luckily all the movements can flow from high to low-impact.
Spry: What should you wear to a Jazzercise class?
SMN: Whatever you’re comfortable in—something you can move in and feel comfortable while you exercise. As for shoes, I don’t think they have to be cross-trainers or aerobic shoes. If basketball shoes are what’s comfortable, wear those.
One thing about Jazzercise that I think sets us apart is there are people of all shapes, sizes and ages. The judgment factor is not there.
Spry: How is Jazzercise different from Zumba?
SMN: Zumba’s movements and music are all Latin, but we’re not just a Latin-based workout. Our choreography tends to follow the style of the song. Also, I don’t know what the training process for Zumba instructors is, but Jazzercise instructors go through quite a rigorous certification process, which includes a written exam, and several movement screenings and workshops.
Spry: Why do you think Jazzercise has been around for so long when lots of other fitness fads have come and gone?
SMN: We aim to be part of your life and not just your fitness program. Our centers are a very family-friendly environment, and you get to know people. It’s like a girls’ night out—at 9:40 in the morning for me! I think that’s why we have such longevity.