Why run when you can dance?

For three decades, Jazzercise has offered exercise with fun

April 21, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | By Sandy Alexander,Sun Staff

It began more than 30 years ago with a dance instructor, a growing market for fitness activities and a catchy play on words: Jazzercise.

Today, founder and Jazzercise Inc. CEO Judi Sheppard Missett still choreographs a new dance-oriented exercise routine every 10 weeks, but now it goes to 5,300 instructors at franchises around the world.

The fitness industry is booming, with trendy new exercise programs appearing regularly, offering the prospects of thinner thighs, buffer biceps and healthier hearts. But despite all the fads and competition, Jazzercise is still going strong.

"This has been our best year ever," says Missett, who will be at the Baltimore Convention Center next weekend for three days of Jazzercise sessions, workshops and a shopping expo. The event will close Sunday with a taping of the latest routine, using all the conference participants.

The premise of Jazzercise -- workout routines based on jazz dance and choreographed to upbeat, popular music -- remains the same as when Missett started her first class in 1969. After graduating from Northwestern University, where she studied theater and dance, she was dancing and teaching in Chicago. She found that many women dropped out of her classes because they were too rigorous.

So she created a class with easy-to-follow steps and a more relaxed atmosphere, and people responded. Missett started Jazzercise Inc. after moving to California in 1972 with her husband and daughter Shanna (now the company's vice-president).

The business took off at a time when many types of aerobics classes combining calisthenics, dance moves and music were gaining popularity. And Jazzercise continued to carve out its niche as group fitness classes became more numerous and more diverse in the 1980s and '90s.

Today, the business has 130 employees, a clothing division, a video production arm and other endeavors that amounted to $17 million in sales last year, according to company press materials.

"People love to dance, and that's the key to our success," says Angela Roberson, who owns Jazzercise Fitness Center in Catonsville. Roberson bought the franchise five years ago and, like other owners, shares her revenues with the company in exchange for routines, training, certification and support.

To stay current, Jazzercise incorporates strength training and stretching. There are also step classes and less strenuous "simply lite" workouts. Popular trends, like kick-boxing, yoga and Pilates are part of the routines as well, but Missett says she is reluctant to make drastic changes based on fads.

"The fitness industry jumps on whatever bandwagon is out there," she says. "I know that what we do is successful. I am not going to change it overnight."

That success can be a mixed blessing. Missett believes Jazzercise's longevity means people associate the name with integrity and quality. "On the other hand," she adds, "you begin to have to deal with, 'Is it really fun and cutting edge?' "

Roberson acknowledges that Jazzercise is often associated with an earlier generation of women, and mentioned along with leg warmers and feathered hair. "That's the hardest thing for us to overcome," she says. "We're so not that anymore."

On a recent weekday afternoon, Roberson led a class of about 30 people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. They were all shapes and sizes and demonstrated different levels of dancing ability, but they all moved in sync with the pounding rhythm and Roberson's instructions.

"This is a great song," Roberson said cheerfully over a headset microphone as she went through the moves in front of the class. "It's all about feeling glorious," she said, scanning the group. "I think we're there."

An hour Jazzercise workout includes a warm-up, 30 minutes of aerobic dancing, a muscle toning session using weights and a full-body stretch. Roberson's class jumped, slid, kicked, punched, swung their hips, bent their arms and otherwise moved their bodies to a variety of music from Janet Jackson's "All for You" to country star Shania Twain's "Still the One" to Pink's "I'm Coming Out."

Roberson's studio, which has 280 active students, also offers body sculpting Jazzercise classes that focus on building muscle, a cardiovascular workout to funk music and several "lite" sessions.

Amy VanFossen, 24, was looking to try hip-hop dance, but when the Baltimore resident heard about Jazzercise she remembered how much fun it was to go with a friend's mother in high school. She decided to try Roberson's class and enlisted some friends from the University of Maryland dental school.

"We loved it the first day," she says. "I liked how unintimidating it is."

Unlike the atmosphere at many gyms, "It's not a fashion show, you don't have to fit into a clique," says Ron Rogers, 62, of Linthicum. Rogers used to jog, but prefers the camaraderie, variety and climate control of Jazzercise, which he started in 1982.

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