Still going strong, Jazzercise finds the fountain of youth
Judi Sheppard Missett, left, founder of Jazzercise, leads a group class back in the day. She still teaches virtual classes today, at age 76. Her daughter Shanna Missett Nelson, far right, is president of the dance-based fitness franchise. “We’ve always moved with the times,” she said.
Remember high-cut leotards over thick, peach-colored pantyhose complete with sweater-knit legwarmers? No? Well, come along anyway on a trip down memory lane for this story about Jazzercise.
Yes, that Jazzercise, the dance-based fitness franchise started by Judi Sheppard Missett in 1969, which now has 8,000 franchisees worldwide in all 50 states and 30 countries.
“She still teaches classes. She does low impact. She’s 76,” said President Shanna Missett Nelson about her mother, founder and CEO.
“She’s crazy ridiculous. She’s just not a normal human being. It’s such a testament. I’m always telling our clients: sweat is the fountain of youth and moving is the fountain of youth.”
My own introduction to Jazzercise came in the 1980s in Denver, where I and a few friends would go to the community center gym to follow Mindy’s moves in three-minute increments to popular songs at the time.
She would pepper her instructions with imagery. “I call this the teapot,” she’d say, crooking one arm and bending to the side with the other outstretched.
At the end of each song she’d strike a pose and say: “And hold it right there.” Afterward we’d get a six-pack of Tab and watch “Hill Street Blues” on TV. (Fellow Jazzercisers of a certain age, I know you did the same.)
“Jazzercise today is going very, very strong,” said Nelson, who is 51. “We’ve had to change with the times to be relevant. You can’t do what you did in the ‘80s.” One change is a move away from recreation centers, schools and cafeterias to dedicated brick and mortar locations. Another is a wider range of classes, from kickboxing to HIIT to strength to stretch.
Nelson started taking Jazzercise while a student at the University of Arizona. “You go to college and you realize your eating and your drinking takes a toll,” she said, and then a manager encouraged her to begin teaching. “Teach Jazzercise? That was the craziest thing ever,” she thought at the time. “I didn’t realize it was a business, it was just something my mom did.”
She went through the training. “I decided to keep it a secret, because what if I didn’t pass? It would be so horrible,” she recalled. “My mom was working in Europe, and I called her” and said “Mom, I became an instructor. She said, an instructor of what?”
Later she went to Japan to help a licensee operate their Jazzercise business, and then managed international franchising. “It is a family-run business,” she said. “You do everything.”
She was named president in 2010, in charge of the operation headquartered in Carlsbad, California. “To be honest, when my promotion to president happened, we had opened another studio here and I was cleaning the resistance balls,” she recalled. “I thought, Yep, this is what you do when you’re president, clean the equipment.”
The latest development, launching Jazzercise on Demand last year, became a lifeline in the pandemic. “I said, we really need a good cushion in our library in case something happens. Well, something happened,” Nelson said. The platform was offered for free for 60 days to current members, at no cost to franchisees.
They also started free, live classes on their Jazzercise channel on Facebook, negotiating with licensing companies to be able to stream mainstream music. Eighty to 85 percent of the members were retained, she said.
Cost of investment is $1,250 to start a bare-bones Jazzercise operation, with add-ons from $50,000 to $100,000 for such things as a fully lit and equipped studio, for example. There are no franchise fees, but rather a monthly cost of 20 percent of revenue to the franchisor.
“Jazzercise was part of what created the fitness industry years ago,” she said. “We’ve always moved with the times, but try to stay true to our values of being the fitness program for everyone and every body.”
Her mother is still an inspiration. “She did an amazing thing, and didn’t mean to start a business and didn’t mean to launch a whole industry. She was smart when she realized she was on to something,” Nelson said.
And with that, as Mindy would say, let’s “hold it right there.”