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At nearly 50, Jazzercise lives on in the age of Zumba

Moving to the beat of Top 40s, you hear an instructor’s dance cues. You grapevine or cha-cha-cha.

Yes, it’s Jazzercise.

In the age of Zumba and CrossFit, the dance fitness program that started nearly 50 years ago lives on, but it’s not exactly your mother’s aerobics. Strength training and body core work get as much focus today as a step-ball-change.

Jazzercise still draws members globally for its exercise, simple choreography and popular tunes. But other people assume it’s faded into the fuzz of ’80s leg warmers.

“People’s question is always, ‘Jazzercise, that’s still around?’” said Erica Demateis, 36, South Hill Jazzercise franchise owner. “In their heads, it’s still in the ’80s.

“What they don’t realize is we have moved with the times and often are on the cutting edge of fitness trends.”

Jessica Lewis, 32, started with Jazzercise 10 years ago when invited by friends attending their mom’s Jazzercise sessions. She got hooked.

“Sometimes people are surprised Jazzercise is as vibrant as it is, and as modern as it is,” said Lewis, before joining a Jan. 20 class on the South Hill.

“Every time I moved to a town, I’d find my local Jazzercise center,” she said. “I love to dance, and how comfortable I feel.”

Several Jazzercise franchises or satellite sites operate regionally: North Spokane, Spokane Valley, South Hill, Coeur d’Alene, and Cheney. Members, mostly women, range from college-aged to people up into their 70s.

They’re loyal, too.

Jazzercise president Shanna Missett Nelson, daughter of founder and CEO Judi Sheppard Missett, visited Spokane recently. She taught the Jan. 20 class with Lewis and some 60 people, for the South Hill center’s grand opening in the Lincoln Heights Shopping Center, at 29th Avenue and Regal Street.

Nelson hears the same refrain outside Jazzercise circles too, that surprise about its longevity.

“It’s definitely both our liability and our asset,” Nelson said. “Most fitness trends tend to come and go pretty quickly. They’re real popular and make their mark, then something else comes along.

“Our staying power definitely is in the environment that we create with Jazzercise. It’s welcoming and non-intimidating. We make people feel good about who they are, what they look like, whatever age they are. Our biggest competitor has always been the couch, not other fitness programs.”

Modern Jazzercise now has multiple fitness formats, including a traditional dance mix that later in the session brings in hand weights, a high-intensity interval training class that mixes dance moves with more muscle work, a kick-boxing option, and strength-focused workouts of various lengths with hand weights and resistance bands.

Members who pay about $55 a month can go to unlimited classes. The amount might be slightly lower or higher depending on the facility and number of classes offered.

Nelson said Jazzercise tends to attract people who otherwise are intimidated by traditional gyms or various boutique fitness centers. She assists her mother in creating the choreography, which also passes approval by a corporate exercise physiologist to ensure safety and effectiveness.

“Our physiologist reviews all the choreography before it’s put out to our instructors,” Nelson said. “She offers either something that we need to change, or simply what an instructor needs to say to make sure we give the right safety or technique tips so that customers perform the movements correctly.”

Jazzercise has hung onto what appeals to people about its program. Its instructors face a group typically from a stage, rather than with back turned, and give verbal cues ahead of next moves that follow a basic repeated pattern to popular music.

Its instructors often show low-impact alternative moves too, such as marching instead of skipping. A few classes are taught entirely as low-impact workouts.

Some men do workout to Jazzercise. Alan Chatham, 32, is a downtown Spokane resident who tried the Jan. 20 class after a friend invited him. He goes to the gym twice a week, does yoga and takes an aerial silks class.

After taking the Jazzercise class, Chatham described “an aggressive cheerfulness,” and that he found it to be fun. “There haven’t been many classes I’ve gone to that I can get into and clap along. This is everything I hear on the radio.”

With help from her family, Demateis found a lease and opened the newly renovated South Hill Jazzercise facility near the end of 2017. Demateis’ mother, Marilyn Marston, 63, is one of its instructors who also helps her daughter operate the site.

Demateis started her career as an instructor at Jazzercise’s corporate headquarters, and befriended Nelson, so she invited her to the Jan. 20 event.

“My mom taught Jazzercise for 20 years in California, and then she and my dad retired to Spokane,” Demateis said. “ I was teaching Jazzercise in Oceanside and Carlsbad, and when we came up to visit, we just loved it here.”

She at first took over a small satellite operation for the South Hill, previously offering limited classes at Rockwood Retirement Community.

“I saw a lot of potential in the South Hill, a lot of young families, a lot of medical workers, all I could see participating in Jazzercise if there was a decent facility,” Demateis said.

“We’ve created a full schedule. We have child care, great visibility.”

Around fitness circles, Demateis knows people likely hear more today about Zumba or full-sized gyms with equipment, but she credits Missett with staying ahead of the curve for health and exercise work.

“She stays on top of what is the newest physiology and kinesiology behind things, and it’s incorporated into our routines, to the most current music.”

The company has more than 8,200 franchisees in 32 countries.

Reaching toward younger demographics, Jazzercise rebranded two years ago, hiked social media use, and launched a campaign called GirlForce. In 2017, GirlForce offered classes for free all last year to females ages 16-21. For 2018, that age group can join for $25 a month.

Nelson said it’s a move that has drawn in younger members.

“For girls at that age, not all of them are dancers or cheerleaders, or active,” Nelson added. “We wanted to offer a place where they could feel comfortable and could dance to the music they hear on the radio.”

Today, that might be tunes by Keith Urban, Pitbull, Ed Sheeran, Justin Timberlake, Kesha and Pink.

Carol Bjork, 57, is owner of the north Spokane Jazzercise fitness center, which operates a 40-class schedule. She said the facility draws teens, Whitworth college students, young moms, and members up into their 70s.

“Our bread and butter is the 35 to 50 range, but we offer low-impact, so we have a lot of seniors who come,” Bjork said. “It’s such a variety in classes.”

Teaching Jazzercise for almost 30 years, she admits bias but thinks there’s a reason for longevity.

“It’s effective and fun. It’s a crazy dance party. You don’t even know the hour has gone by and you’re dripping in sweat and laughing. Personally, if an exercise program isn’t fun, I’m not going to stick with it.”

Spokane Valley’s franchise owner Julie Butler started with the program in 1984, and while moving with a military spouse, continued to seek out Jazzercise classes. Now 55, she certified as an instructor in 2004 after a permanent move to Spokane.

“I see newer people and younger women when they come in, and they’re surprised; they don’t expect it to be what it is,” Butler said. “There are younger women who absolutely love it.”

She’s watched friendships form in classes, and people holding one another accountable. Because of some fitness trends, people might think they have to exhaust their bodies to mean “working out,” but she doesn’t think so.

“I like the dance, the moves and the strength in a more fun way, and I know it’s something I can continue to do as I age.”

Lewis has invited 30-something peers, and she tells them learning routines might be tricky at first, but they have to come back.

“I tell my friends, ‘You have to commit to three times,’ and people get it,” Lewis said. “There’s a lot of research behind the routines and instruction.”


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