Since Jazzercise started over 50 years ago, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) women have come together to exercise and get fit. But if you think Jazzercise is just jazz hands and shoulder rolls, you’re missing out on the bigger story, one about women becoming entrepreneurs and running their own businesses.
Produced by Charlie Herman, with Julia Press and Sarah Wyman.
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: Ok, this might be a little hard to hear…
ALEX LANCE: OK, how we doing?
AL: There we go.
CH: But what you are listening to is Alex Lance teaching some grueling, heart-pumping, aerobic dance steps. Slide right, step right. Slide left, step left….
There are about 20 people following her, nearly all women, in a small studio in the back of a basement gym in New York.
Step Hop Clap. Step Hop Clap. Two more times. Then repeat. And one of the people trying to follow along is me.
Also with me is producer Julia Press, grilling me mid-work out…
JP: Tell me how you are feeling right now?
CH: Very out of breath I have to say… Wow.
JP: Are the moves what you were expecting?
CH: They are they’re just a little bit faster than I thought. Uh…it’s hard to keep up, after a while I get it but it takes a little time, oh, and there’s more.
CH: More… of Jazzercise. And no: I’m not wearing leg warmers.
From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman
Jazzercise started more than 50 years ago in a dance studio near Chicago. Since then, it’s brought together hundreds of thousands of — mostly — women to exercise and get fit. But it’s also given many of them the chance to become entrepreneurs and run their own businesses.
You might think Jazzercise is just jazz hands and headbands, but you’d be missing a much bigger story. One about a woman who made the right choices at the right time and went on to blaze a trail in the $32 billion US fitness industry that we know today.
So grab your gym clothes and get ready to stretch and hold…3…2…1.
CH: I bet when you hear the word “Jazzercise,” the first thing that comes to mind is something like this:
JAZZERCISE: Shake your rump to the funk now. Hit it! Yeah, we’re gonna get jazzy sugar… Yeah, hit it again…
CH: A group of women dancing and stretching and moving to music. For a lot of people, “Jazzercise” is basically another way of saying “the ’80s”: Neon clothes, lycra, shoulder pads and leggings, not to mention all that permed hair and crimping. Remember “the claw?” (How did we ever think we looked good? Anyway…)
JAZZERCISE: You got to find that boogie body ok…um chicka oom chicka…
CH: And then there’s this….
JAZZERCISE: Hi there!
CH: The voice of Judi Sheppard Missett, the creator of Jazzercise.
JAZZERCISE: I want you to take big and lots of good revitalizing O2 and take another one…
CH: She’s front and center, wearing a teal leotard, dark blue stirrup leggings, and has blonde, feathered hair. It’s the ’80s, so think, Heather Locklear.
JAZZERCISE: …and a sexy mature Jazzerciser…
CH: She’s sparkly, enthusiastic, encouraging …
JAZZERCISE: …use those beautiful arms…
CH: She is just so happy teaching Jazzercise! When you watch these videos, just try not to smile. I mean, you just want to follow along!
JAZZERCISE: RRRRRR! Uh-huh, right left yea yea, huh rrrrrrrrr ow!!
CH: That was Judi then.
JAZZERCISE: Shake it sugar do it do it…
CH: And this is Judi today….
JUDI SHEPPARD MISSETT: Jazzercise is my passion.
CH: 50 years after she taught her first class, she still teaches three to four classes a week.
JSM: We have seen many things come and go and I am very fortunate to be able to say that we pretty much pioneered the fitness industry.
CH: And if some of you are thinking, ‘Wait? Jazzercise still exists’ Well, I know. I kind of thought the same thing too when I heard the company was celebrating 50 years last year. And since then, I’ve been kind of obsessed with taking a class — you just heard me struggling through one. I have to tell you, it was tough. I was sore the next day!
So, yes, not only is it still around, there are 8,500 instructors in 25 countries, teaching over 32,000 classes a week. Over its 50 years, Jazzercise has made more than $2 billion in sales. And Judi is right, it did create a template for many of today’s group fitness classes, your barre and your spin and your cross-training workouts. And by the way, I am calling her Judi because that’s what everyone calls her — her students, her instructors, her fans.
The path to Jazzercise began when Judi was growing up in Red Oak, Iowa, a small town in the southwest corner of the state.
She started dancing at a very young age — three years old — and as a teenager, went on win awards, including “America’s Most Beautiful Majorette” circa 1961. (The corn cobs on the ends of her batons might have helped.)
When it was time for college, Judi had two choices: Stanford or Northwestern. She wanted to study theater and radio and television, but in the end, she made her decision thanks to a choreographer she had met named Gus Giordano.
JSM: He said to me, ‘You need to go to Northwestern because that’s where my studio is and I want to train you. I want you to come and dance with me.’
CH: Giordano is considered one of the founders of jazz dancing. For Judi, the opportunity to dance with him, to teach at his studio and perform in his company while going to school at the same time? She couldn’t pass it up. Giardano also gave Judi the space to create what eventually became Jazzercise — though when she started teaching the class in 1969, it was called “Jazz Dance for Adult Beginners.”
JSM: I told him what I wanted to do and he said, ‘Well, hey, go on downstairs to that empty studio and see what happens,’ and by golly, a lot happened.
CH: In the beginning, that introductory dance class for the group of women who signed up, well, it bombed.
JSM: I was teaching those as though the people in my class were intending to become professional dancers. I didn’t think about health or fitness or any of that. It was just, ‘Okay, I have to train these people so they can get better as a dancer and go on and do things.’
CH: Judi would teach a routine based on her professional training. She’d demonstrate the steps to the women, and then walk around the room, make critiques, compare their form in the mirror to her own. And within a few weeks, about 90% of the women dropped out.
JSM: So I realized that a lot of them were also stay-at-home moms, or they had children in other classes in the studio. So while the kids were taking their dance classes, the mom wanted to do something. And so you know they thought, ‘Well, I’ll take a Beginning Jazz dance class.’ It was a dance class, and it was hard.
CH: Judi decided to put aside her hurt feelings and find out what she was doing wrong, how she could improve her class. So she called up the women and asked them for their honest feedback. In her book “Building a Business with a Beat,” she quotes what they told her:
DANCER QUOTE: Plain and simple it was too hard for me. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t remember the counts or the steps.
DANCER QUOTE: I’ll never be on Broadway. I just want to look good for my high school reunion this fall. Pick up some moves, maybe drop a dress size or two.
DANCER QUOTE: I hate seeing all the things I couldn’t do in the mirror. It was demoralizing.
DANCER QUOTE: Honestly, I thought it would be more fun. It wasn’t.
JSM: I realized that they didn’t want to be professional dancers, they just wanted to look like one and that was really my “Aha” moment there in that studio in Evanston, Illinois, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to change the format of the class. I’m going to make it simple and fun and easy to follow, and give them positive motivation but still base it in dance.’
CH: Judi had another “aha” moment that summer, this one at the YMCA. She had been swimming at the Y – mostly to beat the Chicago summer heat – when one day she saw “two muscle-bound” gym employees, as she put it, next to a sign that said “Fitness Test” and she thought…
JSM: ‘Gosh, I would love to do that.’ And so I went through the testing, which they were kind of reticent to put me through because all the tests were geared toward men but I said, ‘Well, let me try.’ And so I did a lot of them and they kind of went off the charts and they were like, ‘Well, what do you do? What kind of activity?’ I said ‘Well, I dance,’ and they’re like, ‘what?’
CH: Judi said they just could not comprehend that a professional dancer, and a woman at that, could be in such good physical shape.
JSM: It was very surprising to them and they said, ‘Well, you really did well and these are not even charts made for women,’ because at the time, they really didn’t have anything like that.
CH: Judi walked out of the Y that day thinking about how dance might help people get in shape. So she changed her beginning dance class for adults. Then she convinced several women who had dropped out to try her class one more time and see if they liked it. When they showed up, she turned them away from the mirror so they would not see themselves and feel intimidated. And this was actually a big deal — because all they had to do was follow Judi, enjoy the music and just imagine how great they looked, without feeling self-conscious.
JSM: I just gave them lots of positive encouragement and tried to tell them, ‘Gosh, you look great,’ because I really felt they did. I would be doing the routine and they’d be following along and they looked great and I would tell them that, and anybody likes to be told they’re good. Come on. (laughs)
CH: Well, what was the reaction from the women in the class once you made those changes?
JSM: Oh, well gosh, they loved it. And I had 15 people in that first class. Well then they went home and told their friend, their best friend, about it, ‘Well, you should come.’ So then the best friend came and then I had 30, and then that friend went home and told somebody else, and then I had 60 and the room wouldn’t hold any more people. So we kind of always had a waiting list which was … That’s a good thing to have.
CH: When you look back on that summer, did you know what you were starting?
JSM: Oh, heck no. I still can’t believe it, that you know it’s come to this. I just loved doing it. It was really fun for me and it was just a highlight in my week, but it was never in my mind that, ‘Oh, this is going to be a business or it’s going to grow.’ It was just something I loved to do and I could share the passion that I had for dance.
CH: For several years, Judi kept on teaching this class until 1971 when she and her family moved to Southern California. Without missing a beat, she kept on dancing and performing and teaching her class for non-dancers that she had grown to love back in Chicago. And in the land of sun and health and fitness, within a couple of years, people loved it. It was also the mid ’70s, and “dance” was cool — it was the era of disco…and…
CHORUS LINE: Duh duh duh duh duh duh — again…
CH: “A Chorus Line.” The Broadway musical all about dance that was sweeping the awards — Tonys, Pulitzer. (Kids, ask your parents, it was the “Hamilton” of its time.)
Within a few years, Judi devoted herself to teaching her fitness class. She got to know Highway 5 really well, driving from one session to the next for five years. And then…
JSM: I lost my voice.
CH: How did you lose your voice?
JSM: Yeah, well it took a little time but I would get hoarse and then I’d be reduced by Friday to a whisper because I was teaching maybe 25, 30 classes a week and talking all the time, and you know, raising my voice and queuing and all the things that you have to do in the class to get people to follow you.
CH: Back then, she had to yell over music and the doctor told her she had nodules on her vocal chords. His advice: ‘Quit talking, or risk permanently losing your voice.’
JSM: The doctor said ‘Well, you know, you just have to make a decision, you’re probably going to have to quit teaching all those classes.’
CH: When we come back, how the choice she made launched Jazzercise across the country, and the world.
CH: We’re back.
When the doctor told Judi she could save her voice if she stopped teaching, Judi thought:
JSM: ‘Well, no. I don’t want to do that,’ because I had a big following and I felt responsible to those people. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could train some people to help me.’
CH: She decided to reach out to five women who had been taking her class for many years and ask them if they would be willing to teach in her place. And they said, ‘We’d love to!’
JSM: I had them come to my home and we did this in my backyard and I just taught them routines and choreography. And then I picked different classes to put them out in, and the different areas in San Diego County. And so off they went.
CH: Other students knew Judi had been losing her voice and worried she might quit teaching altogether. But with five additional instructors, she kept those current students and with more classes, more people could sign up.
JSM: I started getting phone calls from my customers. And at first, the first one I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re going to hate this,’ but they loved it. I thought, ‘Well by golly, what do you know? We’ve done something good here.’ And that was the beginning really of it all.
CH: Turns out other people could teach her fitness class, just, in their own way, and that was okay. People still liked it. From this experience, Judi realized that one person can not do it alone, especially if she wanted to do more with her fitness class. But it still hurt a little bit… I mean, who hasn’t felt that way at some point in their lives.
JSM: Now look, I’m a performer. I’m a person in the theater. We have huge egos, and I was thinking, ‘Well, maybe it’s just me.’ A little bit of me was like, ‘Well, I hope it’s just me. I’m special.’
CH: Right, right. I don’t want, anyone to be as good as me.
JSM: Exactly, but they were and you know, I was very happy for that.
CH: Those five instructors eventually became a core group of 30 and they went out to teach even more classes. When a student asked ‘What do you call what we’re doing?’ Judi told her, ‘Jazz Dance for Fun and Fitness.’ The woman replied that since it was a mix of jazz dance and exercise, “I think you ought to call this ‘Jazzercise.'”
CH: Now, what did you think you were starting to create?
JSM: I had no idea. I didn’t even think about it. Truly, truly, truly I did not think about it. I had so many people telling me, ‘This is great,’ and, ‘Thank you.’ So I just did what seemed natural and what seemed right.
CH: By the late ’70s, Jazzercise was not the only aerobic exercise option out there: Richard Simmons opened his studio in 1974, Jane Fonda in 1979. And as the 1980s approached, Judi and her instructors were ready to spread the gospel of Jazzercise across the country. But she wants to make one thing clear about that era.
JSM: Number one, we never wore legwarmers or headbands, but that was, you know, other people in the industry that did that.
CH: She won’t say it, so I will. She’s means Jane Fonda.
JANE FONDA: Are you ready to do the workout?…
CH: There you go, Jane Fonda in purple leg warmers, light lavender tights and a striped leotard. In fact, it looks like nearly everyone in the video is wearing leg warmers. One guy in the back corner is actually rocking a headband and some sweet looking glasses. So Jane Fonda? Jazzercise? Similar, but different. One focused more on the celebrity, and the other, more on the brand.
Here’s the other thing Judi wants you to know. Yes. She is aware of those great videos of her from the ’80s that people love to watch. And you know what sugar, she does too!
JSM: I think, ‘What fun we had.’ It’s not what we do today, but it’s part of our legacy. So just enjoy it and have a good laugh.
CH: Do you recognize yourself when you watch those videos?
JSM: Oh yeah, of course. I’m not that different today! So… (laughs)
CH: So yeah, go ahead and laugh. But remember, in the 1980s, Jazzercise was everywhere. At football games, the rededication of the Statue of Liberty, on TV talk shows. There was a performance at the Superbowl. Jazzercise was even part of the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
300 jazzercisers performing while 2.5 billion people watched. Judi even ran part of the Olympic Torch relay — the torch she carried is on display at their headquarters.
All of this hoopla is amazing when you consider how Americans looked at exercise in the years before.
NATALIA PETRZELA: In 1950, if you walked around a place like New York City, you would not find a gym or certainly not boutique studio on every street corner. If you were someone who wasn’t a celebrity or an athlete and you wanted to go work out all the time, you would get a lot of odd looks from people.
CH: This is Natalia Petrzela, an associate professor of history at The New School in New York City. She’s writing a book about American fitness culture, and she says exercise as we know it today was not something women did 70 years ago.
NP: For women, you know, the idea would be one, yes, why would you want to spend so much time in the company of other women? There was a kind of fear about lesbianism in there. But also muscles make you masculine. Exercise and sport make you competitive. Neither of those things are feminine virtues. And also that rigorous exercise can destroy your ability to have babies. And what kind of lady would you be if you can’t have babies?
CH: At that time, the main options for fitness included calisthenics taught by people like Jack LaLanne or weight-lifting. Yes, women cared about how they looked, but they were just discouraged from getting in shape through intense, sweaty, physical activity.
NP: There were these places that were very popular called slenderizing salons. It sounds like, you know, the proto-SoulCycle or something maybe. But what these were, is these were these salons or studios often attached to beauty salons. And they would promise, you know, physical exercise while you relax in luxurious comfort. No effort necessary.
CH: The belts around the waist that would sort of shake the fat off.
NP: Yeah. Shake the fat off is the dominant technology going on there. The belts were more of like a 1940s thing.
NP: But in the ’60s, you had these big beds that women would lie on and they would do some of that shaking action. A lot of it kind of emphasized circulatory work in order to enhance weight loss.
CH: If only it were that easy.
NP: I know. I know…
CH: Petrzela argues that attitudes toward fitness, especially women and exercise, started to change in the second half of the 20th century. Part of that shift came from the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1970s. It questioned practically every part of a woman’s life: family, work, power, what she wanted as an individual. This was the era of the Equal Rights Amendment. There were books by women, for women, about their health and sexuality like Our Bodies Ourselves. And of course, there was Roe v. Wade.
Jazzercise came onto the scene right at this moment. While it was not explicitly “feminist,” especially when compared to the very public feminist and activist Jane Fonda, it did reflect how women’s lives were changing.
NP: This was promoting a kind of active womanhood and a kind of empowerment project that really was not explicitly political. And I think that that was very attractive and compelling to a lot of women who honestly weren’t going to be marching in the streets and perhaps weren’t fired up about some of the big women’s issues of the time.
JSM: Yeah, I think that the women’s movement played a role in it. It gave women a sense of power, a sense of, ‘Wait a minute, I do have equal intelligence, I have equal creativity and I should be able to do equal things.’
CH: For the women who became instructors, many saw it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of other women.
JSM: They helped other women to feel better and to get healthier, and to develop also a sense of community. Lots of women being together, enjoying one another, supporting one another. I think that was a huge part of why so many came on board.
CH: Of course, this is complicated. Even as Jazzercise provided a space where women could come together with one another and do something for themselves, some feminists have criticized it, and similar programs, for creating yet another expectation for women. Petrzela believes it’s a legitimate criticism of the entire fitness culture in the US, but does not explain what Judi achieved and why Jazzercise became so popular.
NP: I think that’s not the most interesting thing about it or the dominant part of this story or the reason people keep showing up. I think that does not give enough credit to the kind of vision that she’s always had and to the communities that this created.
CH: Those communities account for part of Jazzercise’s enduring success, something today’s group fitness programs like SoulCycle or Pure Barre emulate and foster. But in addition to the women’s movement, there was another reason why Jazzercise spread across the country and became so popular in the 1980s. The military.
Judi’s move to Southern California in the 1970s put her close to San Diego, home to many military bases. To this day, the county is one of the largest active-duty military centers in the world with the Navy Seals in Coronado, a Navy base in San Diego, and the Marine Corp at Camp Pendleton.
Because of that, many of the women in Judi’s classes had spouses or partners who were in the service, or themselves were serving. And being in the Armed Forces meant that it was very likely you would be transferred to another base in another city at some point and you’d have to move. If those people wanted to keep Jazzercising in a new place, they’d have to become instructors and then spread the word of Jazzercise. So Judi responded.
JSM: We developed a criteria by which you had to apply to become an instructor and if you fit the criteria, then you trained and then you could go on and develop classes in wherever you were going to be transferred to, which they did. So that helped spread the program to other parts of the United States. And then in those areas, it took hold again.
CH: Slowly, more and more women moved across the country to places like Chippewa Falls in Wisconsin or to Texas and began teaching Jazzercise to more women. And as some military families moved overseas, Jazzercise classes started opening in Okinawa, Japan and Guam and Rome. For Judi, her small business in Southern California was becoming a national and international one. She had to get an office, hire staff and figure out how to run the company.
JSM: And let me tell you, I have no business training or background. I never got an MBA and my mother was an accountant and she always said, ‘Oh, Judi, you’ll never be a business person because you don’t have a head for figures.’ And I now have a head for two kinds, the fiscal and the physical.
CH: As Jazzercise got bigger, Judi faced another challenge: how to keep the classes fresh and exciting by giving the instructors new music and new steps. When she started training instructors, remember, they’d meet in her backyard and review the choreography in person. But as those people moved away, the challenge was how to take her routines….
JAZZERCISE: Here we go, find that beat. There you’ve got it…
CH: And translate them into typed notes describing the steps that she could mail to those faraway instructors. It is not easy to do. Here’s my attempt at writing down steps from one short clip for producers Julia Press….
JULIA PRESS: So we start with feet shoulder width apart, wider than shoulder width, okay…
CH: And Sarah Wyman…
SARAH WYMAN: And then we’re going to cross our arms in front of our chest, left hand on right shoulder, right hand on left shoulder.
JP: At the same time.
CH: Trying to figure it out…
JP: Bend sideways at the waist to the right while at the same time uncrossing your arms? And take your right arm and touch the outside of your calf?
SW: Oh dear. (laughs)
JP: What calf?
SW: This is complicated.
JP: Which side?
CH: And they watched how Judi actually demonstrates the steps in the video…
JP: Oh, that’s much more graceful than what we did…
SW: They’re not putting their hand on their hip…
CH: Let’s just say I will not be teaching Jazzercise any time soon. Judi, on the other hand? Well she was a professional dancer; she’d been teaching for years and even for her, writing down the choreography was not easy. That’s when another development proved vital to the success of Jazzercise: technology. In particular, the VHS.
JSM: That made a huge difference because now, instead of people having to interpret choreography from the written word, which is very difficult, we now had a means by which they could view the choreography.
CH: The VHS was introduced to America in 1977. While it was expensive at first — a blank tape cost around $20 in 1977, or about $85 in today’s dollars! — over time, prices dropped and video cameras and recorders and players became more affordable.
And Judi and her husband were among the first to go out and buy a camera and recorder. Judi was on her way to becoming an 1980s video star.
JSM: My husband would tape me doing the material in the backyard by the way, to start with, and then he would make duplicate copies and send them out to all of our instructors who were not near where I was, so that they could visually see the material.
CH: Once the instructors memorized the routines, they could turn around and teach them to their classes.
JSM: That really was something that I think skyrocketed our program.
CH: That’s still how it works today, though now it’s live streaming and digital videos of new routines that are sent out about every 10 weeks.
So the 1980s were getting underway, everything was clicking into place for Judi. From a small studio in Chicago more than ten years earlier, she had launched a new fitness trend. By 1982, there were more than a thousand instructors teaching Jazzercise classes in nearly every state. She had a bestselling book, Jazzercise: A Fun Way to Fitness. And a record that had gone gold. (In fact, in 1982 there were three exercise gold albums – Judi’s as well as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons!)
Everything was going great. Until her accountant called. And her attorney. They needed to talk to her urgently.
Her attorney said to her ‘Judi …. what you’re doing is illegal.’
That’s after the break.
CH: We’re back.
This is a Jazzercise class in Southern California.
Instructor Nancy Brady is leading a group of about 60 women through some of the number one hits from the past few years.
NANCY BRADY: 2017, Shawn Mendes…
Most of the women are in their mid-50s, though there is one woman in the back who is in her early 90s. She’s wearing big, round sunglasses, a black cap and a tee-shirt that reads “Stronger for it.” And she’s crushing it.
Brady has been teaching here for nearly 30 years, but she’s been with Jazzercise even longer.
NB: I’ve been teaching a long time and I don’t plan to stop, you know? I might switch to low impact later on but for right now it’s all good, I still love it. You know, 35 years teaching I still love it.
CH: She became an instructor in 1984 during her senior year at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She took some of her student loan money and bought a Jazzercise franchise.
NB: Every Jazzercise instructor owns a franchise, so you can take that franchise with you if you move and that’s how Jazzercise grew.
CH: Franchising. That was the decision Judi had to make when her attorney and accountant called a few years before Nancy began teaching. They told Judi she was running afoul of employment law and that could get her in trouble with the IRS.
Here’s the deal: In the early ’80s as Jazzercise expanded, instructors were “independent contractors.” By that definition, Judi could dictate the results of their work — teaching her fitness class — but not the way the instructors went about doing it. Sending out VHS tapes with detailed instructions on how to teach a class — kick ball change here, jazz hands there — that might not fly because if Jazzercise was telling instructors how to do their job, it had “control” and that made instructors more like employees. If they were? Well, then Jazzercise had a lot more financial obligations — like social security and medicare payments. Her attorney told her:
JSM: ‘You know Judi, you need to make a choice here. Either make these people employees or make them franchisees.’ At that point franchising wasn’t too much of a big deal. There was McDonald’s out there and not too many others, and so I’d said, ‘Well, tell me what a franchise involves.’
CH: They told her she could keep control of how Jazzercise was taught, but the instructors would get to run their classes like it was their own small business.
JSM: I thought, ‘Well, I like that,’ because as an employee, it didn’t make any sense because they wouldn’t be able to reap the benefits of the classes that they were marketing and teaching. I would pay them simply a salary. As a franchisee, they would make a percentage of what they were reaping the benefits from the business. And so I thought, ‘Well, that’s very much like we already are as independent contractors.’ So I said, ‘I wanna go franchising.’
CH: That decision was yet another reason for the success of Jazzercise. Today, we’re very familiar with franchises — most of them fast food, like McDonald’s and Subway. But Judi took a different approach. She saw restaurant franchises costing a lot of money up front but with lower annual fees. She decided to do the opposite. She made it less expensive at the beginning to buy a Jazzercise franchise to become an instructor, and then later, once you started teaching classes, you’d pay a higher fee. Back in the ’80s, it cost $500 to become an instructor. Today, the upfront cost is just over $1,200, just a little less than inflation.
JSM: In the 1980s, the two hottest franchises were Jazzercise and Dominoes, if you can believe that.
CH: Do you see a connection there?
JSM: Yeah. Well, it was like one sort of supported of the other, you know? The pizza would be eaten and then they’d come to class and take it off so… And you know we’re both still going strong today.
CH: Can you make a living as a franchise-instructor?
JSM: You sure can, but it’s not necessary for you if you don’t want to do that. We have a lot of people who do as, as part-time, but if you want to open your own Jazzercise center and have something, yes, you can make a living. We have people that are doing very well with it.
CH: Judi realized that, as franchisees, women would have more choices. And Professor Pertrzela points out that Judi’s decision also came soon after women gained more opportunities to achieve their professional and financial goals, thanks to the Equal Opportunity Credit Act.
NP: In 1974, there’s this federal act which prohibits discrimination for access to credit on the basis of gender. So if you think about what did life look like before that, if you were a woman and you wanted to get a loan or you wanted to get a credit card, you’d have to show up with a guy to vouch for you, right? That seems very “Handmaid’s Tale.” But that’s the way things were. Which as you can imagine, really prohibited women’s access to participate in a consumer market in any way.
CH: For many women, Jazzercise has had a more lasting effect than is often acknowledged.
NP: One of the things that I’m most compelled by is talking to the women who are like 99%, I believe, of the franchisees of Jazzercise. And hearing how this business allowed women who were often homemakers or very much constrained by their family commitments, to start their own businesses, to make independent money, and to create kind of communities and a form of economic viability for themselves as well. And I think we can forget that when we just think about legwarmers and funny ’80s dance moves.
CH: Nancy Brady knows some people do react that way when she tells them she’s a Jazzercise instructor. So sometimes, she says she leads a “dance fitness program” – it’s just easier. But whatever Nancy calls it, Jazzercise has given her more than dance routines to teach … it’s helped her run her own business.
NB: I’ve learned accounting, I’ve learned to crunch numbers, I’ve learned marketing, I’ve learned how to market on Facebook and Google AdWords, I mean just like any other business. Hire people, make sure that we’re giving the consumer what they want, yeah, what hasn’t it taught me? Maybe that’s the question.
CH: And for many women like her, who want to make money on their own terms over the course of their lives, it’s also provided options.
NB: As a woman who always wanted to have kids but also wanted to have a career, I’ve had two careers and I’m a mom and it’s just kind gone with me and it’s been very flexible and I’m very blessed to have had that.
CH: All of this might not have been the plan when Judi started teaching her “Jazz Dance for Adult Beginners” over 50 years ago. That does not mean, however, that what she accomplished is an accident.
JSM: We were doing the right things when the right things came along, whether it was the women’s movement or technology or franchising, all of those things. But it’s not accidental if you make the choices. If I hadn’t chosen to use the technology or to promote women, if I hadn’t chosen to do that, it never would have happened.
CH: In that first class in 1969, Judi turned the women away from the mirror so they would feel less self-conscious. If she could turn those same women around today, they might be pleasantly surprised to reflect back and see how they inspired Judi for all that followed.
JSM: When you decide in life that you want to do the thing that you really love and then that there’s a purpose behind it, I think you’ll be successful. Do your passion, make it purposeful and you’ll be a happy soul.
CH: This episode was produced by me, with Julia Press and Sarah Wyman.
Special thanks to Margaret Bowani, Libby Brandt, Juliana Kaplan, Meg Teckman-Fullard, and Lauren Thompson.
Also thanks to Jazzercise instructors Alex Lance and Kelsey Jackson and the regulars at Jazzercise Flatiron. It was really hard.
The clip you heard from the 1984 Olympics was from ABC.
Bill Moss is our sound engineer. Music from Audio Network. Casey Holford and John DeLore composed our theme. The editors are Micaela Blei and Carolyn Dubol. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.
JP: This is like the easiest part for you.
CH: Finally, something I can do.