February 25, 2020

The Enduring Legacy of Jazzercise

““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 punchline. The format founded in a dance-studio basement by Judi Sheppard Missett, the frontwoman in the videos, established the style and substance of “boutique fitness,” the fastest-growing segment of today’s $26 billion industry. Jazzercise set the standard not only for contemporary choreographed offerings, but also for the franchise model exemplified by the likes of Curves, PureBarre, 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 older beauty directives that prized a thin and conventional sort of prettiness—a mixed ethos that pervades U.S. fitness culture today.”

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