FitCommerce.com: Good afternoon, Ms. Missett, you started Jazzercise 35 years ago in Chicago. As you think about that era, what happened to get you started in this business?
Judi Sheppard Missett: I was going to Northwestern University as a theater major and I was working professionally in the theater. I started dancing professionally when I was 14, so I was working to help my parents put me through school. The work was with a professional jazz dance company. I was both performing and teaching in their studio.
I was teaching those jazz classes as though the students were going on to become professional dancers. I soon realized that a lot of them were not there for that reason, they were actually there to change their body size to get ready for a class reunion, or to just look better. This was particularly true of the women in the class.
They would come, take a couple of classes and then go on their merry way and I would never see them again. That sort of bothered me. I wanted them to experience the joy of dance and the joy that comes through movement and that art form.
I got permission from the director to try a different approach. I started turning people away from the mirrors, I made dance simple and fun, gave lots of positive reinforcement, and I became their mirror, as a dancer.
FC: What was the growth like in those early days?
JSM: In the first class I had 15 people, the second I had 30, and the next I had 60, and then the room wouldn't hold anymore, then I realized I was on to something.
It was a great joy for me to teach because most of these people were not serious dancers, they were people that had some dance but they wanted to enjoy the experience that comes with that kind of movement. It was fun and I looked forward to doing it.
I only taught it once per week until we moved to Southern California. Then I decided to teach more often and perform less. Then my classes became very popular in the San Diego area and then I branched out and went North a little, then East a little, I began teaching so many classes, I had so many requests I couldn't fulfill them all.
I had to make a big decision, I believe that life gives you lots of forks in the road, and there are always signs, messages, and cues, that tell you what need to do next. What happened to me was that I was teaching so many classes that I lost my voice. I was very thin from working out so much. That was a sign to me to either cut back or train others. I chose to train. And, here we sit some years later and have almost 6,000 instructors all over the world.
" I believe that life gives you lots of forks in the road, and there are always signs and messages, cues, that tell you what need to do next. "
FC: In the early days, when they kept coming back, they were obviously getting something out of it. Was it the results in their body or was it the joy the movement?
JSM: It was both. They achieved a certain level of fitness that they were able to maintain by coming to class. It was also the joy and the fun and the excitement that comes through excellent choreography which is very innovative, the variety in music, always offering new songs, always using cutting edge musical artists.
It gave people that combination of art and science. The art of dance and the science of exercise physiology. That's something they don't get in any other class, that's what sets us apart from any health club or aerobics studio anywhere in the world.
FC: On the topic of physiology, was there a point where you felt you had to adapt your choreography to the human body, so as to exercise certain muscle groups?
JSM: That's what dance is. You're not a good professional dancer unless you know how to do precisely that. I did that from the beginning, it was like rolling off a log for me, not something I had to learn. When you dance, you have to use your whole body and you have to use it properly, you have to do it in the right alignment and you have to give yourself a lot of options for movement.
I was using Pilates 35 years ago because I was trained in it. I was using low and high impact even though I didn't know that's what I was doing because the phrase wasn't coined yet. I was using flexibility moves and strength moves, I was doing these because that's what you do in a dance class.
FC: Over three and a half decades, you had to witness some cusps, the forks in the road as you call them; were there any major changes you can recall along that way where it was either music diverting, or exercise diverting, or perhaps both?
JSM: The music never diverts because we have the most wonderfully creative wonderfully talented musicians out there, and if you know where to go, you're going to find those people.
We use their music in its original form, we don't alter the music in any fashion, for instance forcing 98 beats per minute.
FC: I would imagine it makes the choreography, from a fitness point of view, slightly more challenging because you don't blend in a pre-defined rhythm, is that true?
JSM: You never worry about beats. If you are a true chorographer, and you really understand how the body works, beats per minute mean nothing. There can be a song that has only 3 beats per minute and I can get your heart rate way up to where it needs to be.
It's how you use the music to integrate the movement with the music. That's difficult for people, who are used to the usual aerobic mentality, to understand. You would only understand if you have a background in the art of dance.
As far as the movements changing, as we learned more about what we've needed, I would adapt our class structure for that. In the beginning, they believed 15 minutes of aerobic workout was fine, then it went to 20 and then 30. As we learned more about fitness, I adapted that to what we needed to make sure everyone got the most efficient and effective workout.
As we learned more about weight training, I added more of that into the program because I thought it was important to keep us ahead of the game.
We also introduced programs for kids, active aging adults, circuit training classes, use of balls, weights, tubes, and the Step.
In that respect, you have to change as you learn more about fitness trends. We hired people that were interested in doing these studies. I wanted to know what their results were and then integrate it into what we do.
" I visualize: what does the song feel like, what is it telling me to do, what's the feel of it, visualize movements, then I practice on them, I take them into class and I teach them. "
FC: So you have access to studies on certain exercise protocols and can tap into those and work them into your choreography?
JSM: Right. And some studies we actually commission ourselves.
FC: Can you talk about the creative process. How you come up with fresh material five times a year?
JSM: We do about 85 variations. Being a trained dancer, I started dancing when I was 2 ½ years old. I also studied with some of the masters in the art form. All of that just remains inside of me. I call upon it every time I have to do a new choreography.
Creativity isn't something that you force, you can't just say, 'O.K., every Monday from 9:00 to 3:00 I'm going to create', it doesn't happen like that. It requires, of course discipline, when you get an idea, or you get music you have to work through and if it doesn't work, you have to take it back to the drawing table and do it again until it does work.
I personally teach 5 classes a week. You cannot do the choreography and not teach. It keeps your finger on the pulse of what's out there. It would be like a surgeon operating on your heart who never practices, who never actually does it. I get feedback from students every time I teach. I'm also in other instructors classes all the time and watching.
It just comes into your body, I'm choreographing almost every day of my life. I carry music with me and listen to it in the car. I teach a class once a week that is up in the mountains 2 hours from where I live, I get a lot done during that drive.
The record companies send me lots of promotional tapes all the time. I have a woman who does music research and development for me. She'll give me the songs which I'll listen to and then I visualize: what does the song feel like, what is it telling me to do, what's the feel of it, visualize movements, then I practice on them, I take them into class and I teach them. Sometimes they're right on, and sometimes I have to tweak it a little bit.
"What our classes are all about is success."
FC: How do you cater to different levels of students?
JSM: What our classes are all about is: success. We want someone to come into a class and feel successful right away, not feel intimidated, not feel like 'Oh, I'm a big klutz, I shouldn't be going back there'. I want them to walk in and feel successful.
You walk a fine line between making it challenging but not so challenging that the new person walking in the door would say "Wow, wait a minute, I can't possibly do this, it's too difficult'.
It's a double-edged sword sometimes. We have a lot of veterans that have been around for 20-25 years and that's a big feather in our cap because we have staying power. On the other hand it can be a detriment in a way because people think we haven't progressed. They think 'Oh, Jazzercise that's that big splurge of a program that happened in the eighties'.
FC: Is it difficult to strike a balance between the original recipe that got you here and modifying it for the times?
"Personally, I don't believe that I could have been successful if I hadn't done something out of passion. You have love what you do, it has to be inside of you, it has to be in your heart and your soul."
JSM: Yes, it's true, we experienced great periods of growth in the eighties, but we're still here in 2004. If we hadn't done what we do well, we wouldn't still be here. If we hadn't changed, we wouldn't still be here. Yes, it's the same program in name, but we always keep up with the times, we're very cutting edge.
Longevity is great because you have staying power, but on the other hand sometimes people forget that in order to have staying power, you have to be excellent every day of your life.