Jazzercise was one of the 1st fitness classes ever. Founder Judi Sheppard Missett, 79, reflects on the 'revolutionary' program.

"I turned people away from the mirror and started making what I was teaching fun and easy to do," she says.

Judi Sheppard Missett shares how inclusivity has been the key to longevity for Jazzercise. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Yahoo Life)
Judi Sheppard Missett on how inclusivity is the key to longevity for Jazzercise. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Yahoo Life)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

When you hear the word Jazzercise, a dated image of women working out in vibrant leotards and fuzzy leg warmers might come to mind. The aerobic program, which originated in a dance studio basement in 1969, conjures an idea of a bygone era of fitness that included VHS tapes, like those that famously starred Jane Fonda, that touted weight loss and seemingly targeted an exclusive demographic.

But what you think you know about the very beginnings of women in group fitness is likely wrong, according to Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett, who credits a focus on inclusivity and joy for the longevity of her business.

"I love everybody being in a class. And in fact, as we train our instructors, we tell them that there should be a healthy mix of people in your class," she tells Yahoo Life. "You know, ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicity, all of that. We really try to live by that."

The spirit of inclusivity is inspired by Missett's own journey into fitness, which began with her interest in dance.

Missett teaching one of her earliest Jazzercise classes. (Photo courtesy of Jazzercise)
Missett teaching one of her earliest Jazzercise classes. (Photo courtesy of Jazzercise)

"I'm lucky because I started at age two and a half doing what I love and I have never stopped. And let me tell you, I don't intend to," the 79-year-old says. "So I've always exercised, I've always moved and my body has always been there for me."

Her appreciation for her body is aspirational — especially for somebody who's acted as a trailblazer in women's fitness through decades of evolving beauty ideals that have impacted women immensely. Since the beginning of her journey, however, she's been laser focused on her physical fitness and ability to perform, rather than meeting body standards.

"I've always been very svelte and strong. That, of course, is because I've always danced. I just wanted to maintain the kind of body that I needed to perform, which required a kind of physicality," she explains. "That was really what I thought about."

She spent most of her time as a young adult in dance studios, dancing professionally with a company and even teaching her own class. When she found herself frequenting the YMCA to maintain her strength through activities like swimming, she discovered just how women were being overlooked in the traditional fitness space.

One day, she noticed the gym offering physical fitness tests. She was met with opposition when she showed interest in taking one herself.

"'You can't do it because we don't have any charts for women. It's only based on men,'" she recalls facilitators telling her. "I thought, oh, my gosh, that's not good. So I said, 'Well, let me do it anyway, and then just make adjustments.' So I did, and kind of blew them out of the water."

Missett's endurance and flexibility were impressive compared to that of the "ordinary guy." Her results sparked intrigue as people asked what she did for exercise.

"I'm a professional dancer, so I have to be strong, I have to be balanced, I have to be flexible. I need all of those things and they're all part of being fit," she says she explained. "It was kind of revolutionary for them. They had never thought [about exercise] in those terms."

Nor did Missett at the time.

While she had recognized the benefits of dance in her own life, she hadn't yet considered that other women might be looking to get physically fit as well — specifically those who were already attending her dance classes and getting lost in the choreography. She spoke to attendees who shared that the level of her technical moves were discouraging, as they weren't striving to become poised professionals but rather to obtain the physicality of a dancer. That, she could help them achieve if she found different ways to encourage their participation.

“That was when I turned people away from the mirror and started making what I was teaching fun and easy to do, in order for people to be successful. It was like playing follow the leader all based in dance technique, but simple, easy to follow, good music and I would give them lots of positive encouragement. That was the crossover,” she says. “I thought, wow, I can help them make a difference in how they’re feeling about their body.”

Missett teaching a class at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Jazzercise)
Missett teaching a class at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Jazzercise)

Body image — its connection to mental health and its impact on an individual's relationships with food and exercise — wasn't a mainstream conversation at the time. Even still, Missett noticed that it played a role in people's desire to show up for class. "There's always that little thing in the back of someone's mind like, 'I wonder if I can get into that dress that I bought last year,'" she says. "I don't think necessarily that the women who came to class were thinking negatively about themselves. I think they just wanted to do something that recognized who they were and gave them a great feeling of accomplishment."

The Jazzercise brand would be known for inspiring those positive feelings, so long as Missett was motivated by them as she led. She prides herself on emphasizing "mental health and emotional health" as results of her program from its onset. She also always maintained a focus on physical health being demonstrated by "great numbers when they get their bloodwork done," rather than numbers on a scale.

"Not only did people get healthier and feel better by coming and doing class, but they made friends. That connection and camaraderie does so much to boost your self esteem, so you've got the fitness to help with your self image and you're making friends and you're feeling better about yourself," she says. "They were having fun doing it, not being punished."

Jazzercise has grown to encompass 8,000 franchises worldwide teaching 32,000 classes each week over its 54 years. The brand spans generations as Missett has been joined by her daughter Shanna Missett, who is the current CEO and president, and granddaughter Skyla Nelson, who is an instructor. It also continues to be a welcoming space for all types of people, just as it had been for women in 1969.

"When I first started doing this and I saw so many people coming through the door, I thought, this is so great because fitness should be for everybody," she says.

And while Missett continues to play an active role in the company as an instructor and choreographer, she notes the importance of embracing evolution along the way.

"As things have gone on, we've added different formats. A HIIT program, core and all that stuff," she says. "I'm now evolving with the program too. I'm older, I know what it's like to have creaky knees and stiff joints, so I can adapt and modify the choreography accordingly. I know what I need and that's probably what a lot of other people need as well."

She has her younger self to thank for that work ethic, and for those pains as she gets older.

"I might tell my younger self not to teach quite so many classes when you first start because I was doing like 25, 30 classes. I got so caught up in the joy of what I was doing and I think I'm feeling it now in my body," she jokes. "I think younger Judi probably wouldn't have listened to older Judi, anyway."

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