Culture  /  Origin Story

The Fitness Craze That Changed the Way Women Exercise

Fifty years after Jazzercise was founded, it is still shaping how Americans work out—for better or for worse.

hile exercise spaces for women existed at the time, they often assumed that women valued prettiness and poise over feeling powerful. As early as the 1930s, a Chicago “figure salon” invited women to “soothe the nerves and control the curves,” according to a 1936 piece in the Chicago Tribune. For decades, these businesses were largely owned by men, whose rationale for sex segregation—such as having “ladies’ days” at the bodybuilder Vic Tanny’s chain of clubs—was more about maintaining proper distance between the sexes than enabling women to freely enjoy exercise.

But ideas about women’s bodies and who should have agency over them, at the gym and elsewhere, were changing. New research touted the benefits of aerobic exertion, expanding the popular understanding of exercise to include arenas outside of smelly weight rooms. Many proponents of women’s liberation sought to obliterate old ideas about female frailty and celebrated what women’s bodies could do, whether breastfeeding or playing basketball. Along with Missett, women such as Jacki Sorensen, who developed the competing “aerobic dancing,” and Lydia Bach, who imported Lotte Berk’s barre workout from London, infused this philosophy into exercise.

Jazzercise, with its mostly female clientele and high-energy vibe, was of this moment that Missett seized and helped shape. Her family relocated to San Diego in 1972, where a body-conscious health culture was kicking up. Military wives packed Missett’s classes, which she said she taught so frequently that she nearly permanently lost her voice. When her students’ husbands were reassigned, many of these women were so heartbroken imagining life without Jazzercise that Missett created an official certification program, and then a franchise system, turning exercise into employment for thousands of women and creating global brand ambassadors before such a term existed.
Thousands of letters Missett has saved relay how Jazzercise moved women not only to lose inches, but also, in some cases, to leave abusive husbands, demand raises, and generally find joy in their bodies and lives. Jazzercise’s empowerment effect could be especially intense, because enjoying classes could become a career (more than 90 percent of franchisees begin as students; even more are women). I’ve interviewed women whose first solo travel, in their 30s, was to a Jazzercise convention. They found in the franchise a rare opportunity for employment and camaraderie that fit in with the demands of child-rearing. Missett relishes such stories of how Jazzercise has enabled women’s economic independence, including her own: She gleefully recounts a triumph in 1975 over a sexist Parks and Rec bureaucrat who balked at writing a big paycheck to a “little exercise girl.”