My mom and dad were big-time jitterbuggers back in the 1940s. So you think I can dance? Nope, not until I hit my 40s, anyway.
I’d always envied those who could shake their hips and shimmy their shoulders with rhythm and grace. I got a taste of how fancy footsteps could feel through a flirtation with dance aerobics, and soon those classes took precedence over strength work at the local gym. Then something called Jazzercise beckoned.
I knew it by its reputation as a long-standing fitness program popularized in the 1970s that had grown into a national franchise. Today, the business founded by the still-sleek and ramrod-straight Judi Sheppard Missett has a worldwide network of 7,800 instructors teaching more than 32,000 classes weekly. Many of those instructors and students descended on Washington, D.C., this weekend for Jazzercise’s annual national convention, which featured live taping of new class choreography, specialty group classes and a shopping expo. More than 1,600 fitness enthusiasts from 14 countries registered to participate.
At my inaugural class in 1999, a few neighbors and fellow moms welcomed me as I tried to find an inconspicuous spot in the large open room at Mount Vernon Jazzercise Center in Alexandria, Va. Like almost every Jazzercise class I’ve attended since (and I’ve worked out at more than a dozen centers in five states), participants run the gamut in age, weight and body shape. Some are in knee braces; some move like ringers from Alvin Ailey. At Mount Vernon, more than a few regulars are men. No dress code exists, and there wasn’t a leg-warmer or any Spandex tights in sight.
Every class begins with a warm-up song (in current rotation is Pharrell’s “Brand New”), an easy routine in which you work your way through each body part, and end with stretches. Instructors cue students on each song’s choreographed steps and demonstrate high- and low-intensity variations of the steps. Looking around the room, it’s clear that everyone is going at her own pace, following her own inner guru. The instructor’s enthusiasm is contagious, and she encourages you to reach higher and squat lower, but don’t forget to breathe.
What happened next is what sold me on Jazzercise. Sometimes students joined instructor Mindy LaBruno on the stage, and for one particular chest-popping number, a short, full-figured, gray-haired woman hopped up and danced as if no one were watching. A big smile plastered her face. I was hooked.
The standard Jazzercise class is about 40 minutes of aerobic dance, followed by 20 minutes of core work, usually starting with weight-lifting and leg lifts, and finishing with crunches and floor work. In addition to the dance moves (a how-to of the basic steps is at www.jazzercise.com/about/learn-the-moves), each set of routines will mix it up with kickboxing, Pilates planks and yoga poses. My current center challenges your core and balance with those giant exercise balls; most sites provide weights and resistance tubes. Depending on the center, a variety of classes are offered, from a full hour of strength-focused body-sculpting to a cardio-centric circuit class; some offer lite versions. Every 10 weeks Jazzercise introduces a new set of choreography set to the latest music to keep workouts fresh and fun.
If that weren’t enough, there are add-ons such as a rigorous Ballet Body series a few years back (I noted an immediate improvement in balance after that one) and a recent 90-minute power workout designed to get you swimsuit ready. LaBruno, who is certified as a personal trainer, teaches Personal Touch in which she tortures … I mean, challenges … small groups with kettle bells, bosu balls and other devices. Arlington Jazzercise Center last year held a standing-room-only class with Tim Roberts, a national Jazzercise choreographer (“Street Jazz” DVD), learning new stutter steps and laughing at failed attempts at Roberts’ signature snakelike body roll.
“With Jazzercise you can burn up to 600 calories in one 60-minute cardio and strength fitness class,” says Renee McDonald, an Arlington instructor. “Customers come for the fun, but they stay because of the total body workout, plus a sense of community and support.”
The larger centers also give you a variety of instructors. Some are no-nonsense drill sergeants; others have a ballet dancer’s grace. All are excellent motivators and safety-conscious. My favorite ones freely share their love for the music, whether it’s occasionally singing (or shouting) along, or adding some dance pop. And in the case of Renee, you get the added benefit of stand-up comedy.
Only Renee could use the Crazy Eyes TV character as a hip-hop motivational device: “No moving like it’s ‘Downton Abbey’ out there … knees up! … All right, now you’re looking like the ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Christmas pageant!”
Fifteen years in, I’ve toned up, slimmed down and dropped from a size 16 to a 12 — and stayed there. My stamina’s improved and, in the process, I’ve made some great friends. I’ve even taken it on the road; the dance is consistent throughout the country. The folks at Louisville East Fitness Center in my old Kentucky hometown admit me for free (many centers will honor an exchange if you’re a regular), and on vacation in Hilton Head, S.C., the women were quick with sunburn remedies when I showed up for my second class with a beet-red face.
Most of all, I loosened up, baby. When Shakira starts up, the backbone slips and the hips sway. I’m lost in the music and the beat, and the sweat? Well, as Robert Randolph sings on one of my favorite tunes, “When the music gets down in your soul … it don’t matter.”
— Kay Coyte is managing editor of the Washington Post-Bloomberg news service. This essay originally appeared on MyLittleBird.com, a women’s-eye view of fashion, design and culture.