“You’re not in Jazzercise, ladies,” a trim, tattooed fitness instructor chided me and the roomful of women who were attempting to work up a sweat one morning a few months ago. I’d never done Jazzercise, but I knew what she meant. The caustic cue conjured grainy VHS tapes—the kind that circulate on social media for their Totally ’80s aesthetic—featuring a gyrating blonde who’s all limbs, leotard, and embarrassing exclamations like “Find that boogie body.” My instructor was calling us uncool.
Tempting as it may be to dismiss Jazzercise to the dustbin of fitness history, the dance-cardio program—which turns 50 this month—is more than a punch line. The format founded in a dance-studio basement by Judi Sheppard Missett, the front woman in the videos, established the style and substance of “boutique fitness,” the fastest-growing segment of today’s $26 billion fitness industry. Jazzercise set the standard not only for contemporary choreographed offerings, but also for the franchise model exemplified by the likes of Curves, Pure Barre, and Barry’s Bootcamp.
Perhaps most crucially, serving a female clientele when exercise was perceived as the domain of men, Jazzercise invited women to find the “joy” and “flair” in working out. The program challenged an enduring machismo that still limits women’s full participation in many exercise environments. The feel-good fitness language that Jazzercise birthed, however, blended newly empowering affirmations with old beauty directives that prized a thin and conventional sort of prettiness—a mixed ethos that pervades U.S. fitness culture today.
“We’re still here,” Missett reminds me when I ask about her career in the past tense during an interview. According to her forthcoming memoir, Building a Business With a Beat, Jazzercise has netted $2 billion in cumulative sales. Taught primarily in freestanding suburban centers or in community spaces such as churches and schools, Jazzercise is in every U.S. state and 25 other countries. At the height of its popularity, in the mid-1980s, Jazzercise was the second-fastest-growing franchise business in the country, after Domino’s Pizza.