Can Jazzercise—the original aerobic dance workout—engage an easily bored exerciser?
I’ve danced on and off since I was a little girl, from ballet recitals to high school musicals to a weekly adult jazz technique class. Though I was never cut out to go pro, I’d often think, as I rehearsed a routine, “I wish I could do this every day!”
In late 2010, I started working at Spry and interviewing fitness legends like Jane Fonda and Denise Austin. I was embarrassed to preach the virtues of regular exercise to my readers while I had, at best, an intermittent relationship with my elliptical machine. And I was envious of people who seemed to love working out, because I’d always hit the gym grudgingly.
One day a co-worker mentioned taking Jazzercise at a nearby studio. “Is that still around?” I blurted out without thinking. I’d tried different types of aerobics over the years, but they were never “dance-y” enough to hold my interest—even Zumba, whose music and moves I found too repetitive. So one Friday I packed a bag with yoga pants, a t-shirt and sneakers and headed to Franklin Jazzercise Fitness Center.
The studio, a long, narrow room with high ceilings and a small stage at one end, didn’t look like any dance studio I’d been in—there were no mirrors, for instance—but that didn’t bother me. The owner, Linda, was kind and enthusiastic as she registered me for the class.
Linda told me to choose some hand weights and a mat from a large shelf near the door for the strength-training segment. I played it safe and picked up 3-pounders.
The previous class ended, and I sought out a spot in the back of the room. The evening classes usually attract anywhere from 10 to 20 people, and I noticed a relatively wide range of ages, shapes and sizes, which was reassuring. At this point, I hadn’t really worked out in (gulp) more than a year and had no idea what to expect—from the class or my body.
The instructor, Beth, hopped up on stage sporting a colorful Jazzercise tank and a wireless microphone headset like the one pop singers wear. She welcomed us to class and began the warm-up, set to The Black-Eyed Peas’ “The Time (Dirty Bit).” Beth was facing us and mirroring our movements, and calling out instructions a few beats ahead of when we needed to start them.
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The steps closely resembled a jazz technique warm-up known as “isolations,” in which you move one part of your body while keeping the rest still. Typically, you do this with the head, shoulders, ribcage and hips in turn, to give each a chance to loosen up. This was the first indication of Jazzercise’s strong roots in dance, but I found many familiar movements throughout class—chasse´, jazz squares, attitude leg lifts, triplet patterns—and they were always called by their proper dance names.
We moved through a series of routines, set to music from Glee, Flo Rida, Enrique Iglesias and more. (What? No ’80s tunes? I can’t say I minded.) I soon figured out that each song only had about 4-6 different steps to learn. Usually a combination of two movements was repeated over and over during the verses, and then we switched to another short combination for the chorus.
Now here I have to toot my own horn: I’ve always excelled at picking up combinations quickly. In dance class, I was never the student with the strongest technique (by far!), but was known for my good memory. So it’s hard to evaluate the learning curve. But by the end of each song, everyone seemed to be following fairly well, helped along by the fact that the choreography followed the song’s structure.
This is not to say that I breezed through that first class. The cardio set is designed to get your heart pumping and keep it there for a good 20-30 minutes. While I could easily follow the steps, my stamina left a lot to be desired. For every high-impact move, Beth demonstrated a low-impact alternative, and as class went on I found myself taking the option more often. But I liked the idea of having something to work up to.
After about 40 minutes, it was time to shift into strength training, where we systematically worked each of the major muscle groups: upper body, abs, glutes and thighs. For some we used the hand weights, and others were weight-bearing moves, like lunges or planks. This was the section of class that surprised me the most, as I’d expected a full hour of cardio. But I was thrilled, because I’d never had much self-discipline when working with weights on my own.
As the class wound down, we stretched our worn-out muscles for an entire song (bliss!), then finished with a cooldown. When the class ended, I was breathless—from exhaustion and excitement. Had I finally found a workout I would stick to?
More than a year later, I have sweated through nearly 200 Jazzercise classes. Each 60 minutes, I get an intense cardio workout plus a well-rounded weight-training session, and the sets change frequently enough to keep me from getting bored attending 4-6 classes a week. Jazzercise choreographs new routines periodically, but instructors can also mix in older tunes, which makes for an endless variety of sets.
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But most important, in Jazzercise I found an activity that combines something I need with something I have loved all my life. Going to class doesn’t feel like an obligation. It’s more like a hobby with benefits. It helps that my studio is a friendly community, with instructors (also of all ages, shapes and sizes) who greet you warmly and offer a gentle nudge when they haven’t seen you in weeks. Sometimes during class, they’ll shout out, “Is this the best part of your day?” More often than not, I can truly say, “Yes!”
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