Celebration Corner: Jazzercise Inc.'s 50th anniversary

By Ilene Schneider

The company that propelled aerobic dance to prominence in the 1980s marked the milestone with a convention and a book launch.


The Business: As a pigeon-toed toddler, Judy Ann Sheppard (later known as Judi Sheppard Missett) enrolled in dancing lessons to straighten out her gait. She showed a clear aptitude for dance and was performing by the age of 3. At 13 she was teaching and performing competitively. As a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she studied jazz dance with Gus Giordano and worked as a professional dancer and choreographer.

In 1969, Giordano wanted Judi to teach a class for mothers of his students, called “Jazz Dance for Adult Beginners.” Faced with a 90% dropout rate, Judi asked people why they had stopped coming and learned that the class was too challenging for them. They didn’t want to be professional dancers; they just wanted to look like them. Judi responded to the feedback by creating routines that were “simpler and more fun,” accompanied by good music. The class grew exponentially, and Jazz Dance for Fun and Fitness was born.

In 1971, when Judi and her husband, Jack Missett, moved to Oceanside, Calif., Judi started teaching the class there, capitalizing on the perception that “California is about health, fitness and beautiful bodies,” she says. The class was renamed Jazzercise in 1977. Judi gave up performing and began teaching 25 to 30 classes a week until she developed nodules on her vocal cords. Told by a doctor to cut back, she began training other women to teach the classes. By the early 1980s, there were more than 1,000 Jazzercise instructors all over the country, many of them military wives who had moved away from California.

Attorneys and accountants advised Judi to change Jazzercise’s business model to make the instructors either employees or franchisees, instead of independent contractors. “I wanted people to feel empowered, so we opted for the franchise model in 1983,” she explains. By 1984, Jazzercise was declared the second-fastest-growing franchise behind Domino’s Pizza. “Domino’s puts the calories on, and we take them off,” Judi quips.

Today there are 8,300 Jazzercise franchisees in 32 countries, and Jazzercise earns about $100 million per year. With 200,000 customers dancing and sweating to Jazzercise choreography in 32,000 classes every week, millions of lives have been touched during the company’s 50-year history. Jazzercise’s dance fitness program continues to evolve.

While some people may think of Jazzercise as “your mother’s workout from the ’80s, with leotards and leg warmers,” today’s Jazzercise offers high-intensity, 60-minute classes that fuse cardio, strength, Pilates, hip-hop, yoga and kickboxing. Routines change every 10 weeks, and multiple formats provide variety.

Jazzercise has been known for innovations throughout its history. Its many fitness industry “firsts” have become the status quo in today’s group fitness classes, including: choreography to Top 40 music, introduction of new routines on a regular basis, an extensive training program and certification for instructors, and a store offering fitness apparel.

Judi emphasizes that Jazzercise is a “workout program for every body.” Instructors encourage customers in a judgment-free zone and provide modifications for challenging routines.

People stay with Jazzercise for an average of four years and attend an average of four classes per week. Customers tend to socialize after class. The company also has a longstanding tradition of giving back and has raised more than $28 million for a wide range of causes.

The Family: Judi, 75, is the CEO and sole owner of Jazzercise Inc. She says she surrounds herself with good people and listens to them. “Passion is like a magnet,” she says. “It attracts other people who have passion.” She says her willingness to change has sustained the business and given it resilience. “Having a good balance between mind, body and spirit keeps you centered, allows you to make good decisions and move forward in the right way,” she adds.

Her daughter, Shanna Missett Nelson, 51, is president of the company. Shanna says she wears “many different hats.” She splits the “constant and ongoing choreography” with Judi; serves on the leadership team, which develops long- and short-term goals to guide the direction of the company; oversees Jazzercise Apparel; and manages the corporate studios in Oceanside and Carlsbad, Calif. Shanna, who has been a Jazzercise instructor for 30 years, enjoys “finding new talents and mentoring and watching people become good at their jobs.”

Jack, 75, is the owner and founder of JM Digital Works, which produces the videos Jazzercise distributes. He emphasizes that not actually being an employee of Jazzercise has allowed him and his wife to have “52 years of wedded bliss.” He says the key to Jazzercise is sharing the joy of movement. “Get people on their feet and let them be dancers, and see the personal relationships that develop,” he says.

Two nieces are also part of the company. Joan Missett Gambill, 56, sales manager, had her “aha moment” when she became a Jazzercise instructor at the age of 18. She started Jazzercise classes at Chico State University, in Italy during her junior year abroad and then in San Francisco. Now, based out of her home in the San Diego area, she helps other Jazzercise franchisees to grow their businesses.

Kathy Missett, 49, executive adviser, focuses on building the perception of Jazzercise as a continually evolving program that changes people’s lives while improving their fitness. She joined the company in 2000 as vice president of marketing, following the example of her mother, Sandy, who is married to Jack’s brother. Sandy worked at Jazzercise as Judi’s assistant until she retired.

Judi’s granddaughters, ages 16 and 13, are already performing and teaching children’s classes. As for Judi, she has no plans to retire.

The Celebration: For Judi, the 50th anniversary celebration was about the sense of connection brought about by Jazzercise as well as a way of giving back to those who have been part of it. To celebrate her own 50 years of teaching and running a business, she has written a book, published by McGraw-Hill: Building a Business with a Beat: Leadership Lessons from Jazzercise — an Empire Built on Passion, Purpose and Heart. As she tells it, the goal in sharing her experience is to “empower others to embrace their passion, trust their instincts and go for it!”

Jazzercise celebrated its golden anniversary with a two-day international convention and party June 28 and 29 at the San Diego Convention Center. The event featured dance fitness classes taught by instructors from around the world, live entertainment, international guest performers, reminiscences and connection. Three thousand customers and instructors attended, including 17 of the original 30 instructors, some of whom are still teaching classes.

Jazzercise holds annual sales meetings, but conventions are now spaced a little further apart. The previous convention took place in 2016 in Palm Springs, Calif. The next convention is not yet in the planning stages. The 50th anniversary convention was special because of its emphasis on the history of the business.

The weekend began with behind-the-scenes tours of the corporate offices and a festive Friday night gala in which Judi’s granddaughters, Skyla and Sienna Nelson, danced with their friends, Jazzercise’s Japanese instructors put on an energetic performance, and Judi honored and recognized 13 of the original instructors. Saturday was a day full of dance fitness classes. An interactive museum chronicled Jazzercise’s influence on the industry, such as the class flow (warm-up, building intensity, cool-down) and instructors’ use of microphones. Specialty 50th anniversary merchandise was offered for sale, as was Judi’s book. Fans waited in line for her to sign their copies.

“We always celebrate any milestone, but this is so special,” Judi says. “We wanted to celebrate the fact that we have touched so many people over the years, and to bring those people together so we could celebrate the physical commitment and the joy of 50 years of Jazzercise.

“Also, I don’t know how many women have founded a company and been with it for 50 years — this alone is worth celebrating.”

The Planning: Planning began about 2½ years in advance. Everyone in the company was involved at some point. Tasks included securing the convention center and hotels, planning the classes and selecting the talent to present, writing the gala show, designing and ordering apparel to sell in the store and putting together a museum for the event.

The planning team paid special attention to the look and feel of the celebration. “We wanted to make sure our customers got the best, most authentic Jazzercise experience while celebrating this milestone with us,” Judi says.

The Response: “It was so cool and energizing to be part of something huge and international. There’s nothing like dancing in a room with 3,000 people,” says Kathy Rogers of Friendswood, Texas, who has been a Jazzercise customer since 1985. Rogers adds that when the convention closed with the classic disco song “Last Dance,” people were getting emotional.

Renee Baumler of Irvine, Calif., who has been a Jazzercise customer for “19 years and counting,” enjoys the program because of its “fun, knowledgeable instructors, great company, great music and whole-body routine.”

She adds, “The topper is being part of an organization 50 years strong and being able to celebrate that milestone with thousands of other Jazzercise members!”

Sue Grassi, a 28-year Jazzerciser and 10-year in­structor, says the convention heightened her sense of the Jazzercise community. “We’re like one big family, and Judi is so real,” she says. Grassi, who is from Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, enjoyed connecting with people from all over the world, hanging out with fellow instructors, taking a variety of “really good classes” and touring the corporate headquarters. She also appreciated the little touches, like professional signage and multiple fitness formats.

Shawn Masse, of Tustin, Calif., who has taught Jazzercise since 1987 — “back when we used a Califone and 45 RPM records,” appreciated “the details that made the convention center feel like our own facility.” The highlight of the convention, she says, was “to feel the extra energy that comes from being part of a company where you can get 3,000 people to come and jump around.” Masse adds that the convention demonstrated Judi’s “infectious way of bringing out passion. It’s a special thing.”

The Advice: For owners of businesses approaching a milestone anniversary, Judi’s celebration advice is simple: “Do it,” she says.

“Be proud of who you are and celebrate in a way that lets you acknowledge all those who have been involved along the way — both employees and customers. I think it’s important for people who work for you — with you — and your customers to give themselves credit for their involvement in your celebration. Thank them!” 

Ilene Schneider, a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif., has been attending Jazzercise classes on a regular basis since 2006.

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

Article categories: 
January/February 2020

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