Judi Sheppard Missett knew she would dedicate her life to the joy of dance from the first time she stepped on the stage. But it wasn't until years later that she realized she would also be devoting her life to fitness. The 61-year-old Jazzercise founder and CEO credits her longevity in the fitness industry to her ability to adapt to different trends. While Jazzercise has had the same core philosophy since the 1970s — making exercise fun and effective for individuals of all ages and fitness levels — the company has continually changed its music, movements and class structure to stay on the cutting edge.

“We always make sure that our classes are fun and challenging and our students feel successful,” she says. “That's why we're still here and doing better than we've ever done.”

Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro magazine will recognize Judi for her decades of dedication to the fitness industry by presenting her with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Club Industry show this November in Chicago. Jazzercise, Inc., which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary, has grown from a one-woman operation to a worldwide business with 3,200 locations, 20,000 weekly classes and more than $70 million in system-wide sales.

Before founding Jazzercise, Judi toured on Broadway and worked as a professional dancer. At the age of 14, she joined a touring company and starred in a production of “West Side Story.” She went on to star in “Funny Girl,” “Hello Dolly,” “Mame,” “Coco” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami. Her dancing roots, however, began in Red Oak, Iowa, where her mom enrolled her in a dance class.

“I was pigeon toed, and my mom thought it would be good for me to be in a dance class to help with my inward rotation,” she says. “My mom would practice with me every day for a half an hour, and I was very willing to go to class. I loved it, and everything came naturally to me.”

Her hard work paid off. As a young girl, she taught dance classes to her friends in the neighborhood, and decades later, she's helped thousands of women get fit by creating Jazzercise, which started in Chicago and has spread across the nation and the world.

Where It All Began

The history of Jazzercise can be traced back to 1969 when Judi was a student at Northwestern University in Chicago and taught dance classes at a jazz studio. Her classes had a 90 percent dropout rate, and she searched for ways to improve retention. One day it dawned on her that her students attended the class to lose weight, have fun and get in shape — not to become professional Broadway dancers. As an experiment, she turned them away from the mirrors and became less critical of their movements. Her students loved the concept, and she soon doubled and tripled her class attendance until the room was packed.

Jack Missett, her husband of 39 years, says the mothers of the dancers also served as inspiration for the dance-fitness program.

“I would sometimes drop in on class and see eight or 10 women with scarves around their necks sitting on chairs knitting, reading and watching their daughters,” he says. “One day Judi turned and looked at the mothers and said she had to do something to get them up on their feet and experience the joy of movement.”

In her first “just for fun” dance classes, which she later named Jazzercise, she used a jazz dance warmup to start the class and then used up-tempo choreography for the main portion of the workout followed by a stretch and cool down at the end. When she and her family moved from Chicago to California, she started teaching the dance classes for the Carlsbad Parks and Recreation Department. Word spread about Jazzercise, and the program exploded with women from all over the area attending the classes. To keep the participant numbers to a manageable level, the city department began limiting participation to individuals with a Carlsbad, CA, street address, but that didn't stop some women, who signed up for P.O. boxes at the Carlsbad post office so they could attend the Jazzercise classes.

Training the Teachers

To meet the high demand for classes, Judi trained 11 instructors at her home. Later as the number of instructors grew, Judi and Jack turned to a new technology at the time — the home VCR — to train the teachers. The couple drove to San Diego to purchase two VCRs and a video camera, and Jack, a former Chicago CBS news reporter, filmed Judi's dance routines, made copies of the videotapes one by one and mailed them to the teachers. When the Jazzercise instructor numbers grew to 100, the couple started their own production company to produce the tapes for Jazzercise as well as clients nationwide. Judi also took her concept to the next level by selling franchises nationwide and worldwide and provided business opportunities for thousands of women.

Jazzercise has continued to stay on top of technology by training its instructors with DVDs and Internet resources. The company sends the teachers a DVD with 28 new routines and the accompanying music every 10 weeks, and the instructors can download choreography notes from the Jazzercise Web site.

Judi still teaches five classes per week and designs all the choreography for the Jazzercise classes. Her niece, Kathy Missett, says 80 to 100 students show up for Judi's classes.

“She's dynamic and has a presence on stage,” Kathy says. “She can motivate a room of people like no one else. I feel that the same level of energy and motivation that she's able to bestow on the class is the same level of energy that she gets back from her class.”

By working out along with the students, Judi can test her movements before the production company films the training DVDs for the instructors. After her production company pretapes her workouts, an exercise physiologist reviews the movements for safety and if necessary, Judi modifies the routines before the final taping.

While group exercise classes are on the decline in some health clubs, Jazzercise has grown stronger with each year. One key to Jazzercise's success is consistency, Judi says. Unlike group ex classes that can vary from instructor to instructor, Jazzercise students know what to expect when they walk into a class, she says.

“They know they'll do a little yoga and Pilates, burn some calories and get out of the door in an hour,” she says. “Sometimes in a health club, they don't know what to expect and they can feel lost. That's when class attendance can take a big hit.”

Judi's ability to develop new and creative routines every 10 weeks for 36 years amazes Angie Ford, the owner of the Overland Park, KS, Jazzercise center. Ford has been teaching since 1989, and she says the classes have gotten more intense. For example, she remembers a routine in the 1980s to the song “Fame” that was a heavy cardio routine. Twenty years later, Jazzercise used a remake of the song, and the routine was used for a warmup routine.

“Jazzercise continues to challenge people who have been doing it for 15 or 20 years,” Ford says. “That's why we've been around for 36 years rather than fading into the sunset.”

Legacy of Fitness

Jazzercise may continue long after Judi steps off the dance stage. Her daughter, Shanna Missett Nelson, now serves as the executive vice president of the organization and manages the Jazzercise executive team. She started her career with Jazzercise as a certified instructor and media spokesperson and then became the coordinator of Junior Jazzercise, a dance fitness program for children, and the vice president of international operations.

Kathy, a Jazzercise senior business analyst who works closely with Judi and Shanna, says the mother-daughter team balances each other out.

“They bring different perspectives to the table, which is critical,” she says. “Judi has grown the business from the ground up, is passionate about the program and is very heavily involved in Jazzercise. Shanna can step out of that box and see Jazzercise through the eyes of our instructors and students.”

Shanna joined the Junior Jazzercise performance group at the age of 7, and as a teenager, she watched her mom's first workout album climb to gold certification status. It wasn't until she went to college in Tucson, however, that she saw how popular Jazzercise was outside of the Golden State. At that time, she attended Jazzercise classes and witnessed the enthusiasm of the students.

“Every day I watched my mom get excited about her job, and I couldn't help but share her passion,” Shanna says. “Jazzercise has been more than her life's work. It's something she truly believes in and has used to motivate thousands of people everyday. When it came to identifying role models and a career path for my life, both were very clear to me.”

Future of Jazzercise

Judi and Shanna are working together to develop new choreography, organize annual events, promote the Jazzercise-branded line of fitness apparel and raise money for charities. In the past 20 years, Jazzercise has raised more than $25 million for different causes. Their newest program, Art and Soul Tour, benefits the Boys and Girls Clubs of America's Art Enrichment Program for Kids and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Their goal is to raise $1 million with a 10-city tour.

“Art feeds your soul and brings so much joy into people's lives,” Judi says. “As an artist who has been successful, I want to give back to those who need a little help. We've also made great strides in breast cancer research. There's not one woman who hasn't been touched by breast cancer.”

As far back as she can remember, her aunt has given back on both a local and national level, Kathy says. Judi and her daughter are now trying to tackle a nationwide issue — childhood obesity — by offering Junior Jazzercise classes in elementary schools. Some Jazzercise centers also offer Junior Jazzercise classes, but Judi encourages instructors to go a step further by teaching classes at schools in their gyms, cafeterias or classrooms. Since Jazzercise hired a full-time Junior Jazzercise coordinator, the program has grown by more than 100 percent, Kathy says. Jazzercise is also reaching out to seniors by offering Jazzercise Lite classes in retirement communities.

By providing classes for children, senior citizens and everyone in between, Jazzercise has made fitness fun and effective for students of all ages, Judi says. When she first started her dance classes in Chicago, she had no idea how far she would come in 36 years, she says. Her husband says her passion, positive attitude and compassion have gotten her to where she is today.

“What she's done has affected millions of people's lives in terms of introducing them to a fun way to be fit and raising their potential to enjoy life,” he says. “She has introduced them to the joy of movement.”

Q&A with Judi Sheppard Missett

Q: How did you come up with the name Jazzercise?

A: I was teaching in La Jolla, CA, and one of my students said I should call it Jazzercise because it was a combination of exercise and jazz dance. A couple of days later, I went to the copyright office and registered the name.

Q: What are you the most proud of in your professional career?

A: Being able to found a company that is woman-based, has a history of 35 years and is only getting stronger and better. I know it will continue to grow and change with my daughter and my granddaughter.

Q: What are the benefits of continuing to teach Jazzercise?

A: I have five regularly scheduled classes per week and am in class every day. I need that exposure with my student base to make sure that everything works and everyone likes the movements and can do them.

Q: What are the advantages of sending your instructors training DVDs and music rather than having them create their own routines?

A: It's really hard to do on your own. Every 10 weeks they can count on me to get a DVD with great music and fun movements.

Q: How has Jazzercise managed to continue growing over its 36-year history?

A: I think number one it's fun. We have remained consistent in what we do, and our students see the benefits of hard work. I also have so many incredible people who are totally dedicated to Jazzercise and share my passion. When you have people like that around you, you can't help but be successful.

Q: How do you feel about winning the Lifetime Achievement Award?

A: I'm honored and thrilled and feel like I haven't done that much in my lifetime. It's very humbling to be honored for something that you love and are passionate about.

In their words

“When I see her, I'm still starstruck and am like a teenager at a Beatles concert. She's one of my top five heroes. While she's done extraordinary things, she's still a down-to-earth person with good old Midwestern roots.”

Angie Ford, owner of the Overland Park, KS, Jazzercise center and instructor since 1989

“She's dynamic, very passionate, persistent and flexible — and not just in the physical way. Her flexibility is one of the reasons why she's continued the success of Jazzercise. She's open to new ideas and new ways to grow the company and the program, which is often difficult for entrepreneurs. They take a product or a service that is their passion and have a hard time incorporating other's thoughts and ideas.”

Kathy Missett, Judi's niece and Jazzercise senior business analyst

“Judi always has a positive attitude. I remember when we had a car with a sunroof and we were going to Los Angeles. Traffic was terrible. I was driving and fuming because I hate to wait. She looked up through the sunroof and said, ‘This is a beautiful day.’ She's never lost that quality.”

Jack Missett, Judi's husband, who she met on a blind date during the summer of 1965 and married a year later. They have two children, Shanna and Brendan, a granddaughter named Skyla and another grandchild on the way.