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Meet the Mother-Daughter Duo Behind Jazzercise

Find out how this pair stays fit after 50

spinner image from left to right jazzercise president and c e o shanna nelson then instructor skyla nelson then jazzercise founder judi sheppard missett
Three generations of women keep Jazzercise groovin’ along. From left: Jazzercise President and CEO Shanna Missett Nelson, instructor Skyla Nelson and Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard Missett.
Courtesy Jazzercise, Inc.

Judi Sheppard Missett started dancing when she was 2 years old. Still moving and grooving now at 79, the executive chair of Jazzercise found a way to use her passion for dance to kick-start and run a multimillion-dollar fitness industry.

That passion trickled down to Missett's daughter, Shanna Missett Nelson, who has taken over as the company's president and CEO.

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Just a year older than the 54-year-old company, Missett Nelson says some of her earliest memories are of her mom in tights and a leotard rushing to class. Joining the business seemed like a natural fit, she said, adding that there was never any pressure from her mom.

Even Missett's granddaughter, Skyla Nelson, 21, is a part of the family business. She is an instructor in a studio in Carlsbad, California, where company headquarters are based.

Missett says that even though she has turned over operations to her daughter, she’s not retired yet. She regularly hops into the office to offer her opinion. But, she says, “If I were to go tomorrow, I know the company would be in fabulous hands.”

The three generations of women work together to keep the decades-old exercise program modern and popular.

Dance moves for the masses

Rooted in jazz dance – a form of dance that combines African and European styles – Jazzercise was born after Missett noticed students in her adult jazz class would often quit after a few lessons. What she discovered is that many of them wanted to look like professional dancers without actually learning some of the more complicated skills.

Missett created a class that was based in traditional jazz dance but was taught with a teacher at the front, cardio-fitness class style, with easy-to-follow steps. It worked.

“I turned people away from the mirror. I made things simpler and easy to follow. I gave people as much encouragement as I could. I tried to use really good music,” Missett explained.

spinner image judi leading a class at the jazz dance world congress at the kennedy center in washington d c
Judi Sheppard Missett leads a Jazzercise class at the 1996 Jazz Dance World Congress held at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Courtesy Jazzercise, Inc.

What started as a single class in 1969, taught in a tiny studio near Northwestern University in Chicago, became the second-fastest growing franchise, behind Domino’s Pizza, in 1984. Now in its 54th year, the company boasts 444 studios around the world that teach Jazzercise.

Changing with the times

The women recognized that to stay strong in an ever-growing fitness industry, they needed to modernize. In 2012 they launched the myJazzercise app, which can locate classes as well as track a user’s fitness progress. And in 2019, the company released Jazzercise On Demand, offering classes via phone, TV and computer screen for a fee via major streaming services.

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They also offer a much wider range of classes that include strength training and stretching, incorporating other popular programs like Pilates and HIIT workouts.

But Missett says the primary focus of “the original dance party workout” remains the same: to inspire people to get moving with a supportive community.

How they stay motivated and active

Knowing a thing or two about a lifetime commitment to fitness, the mother-daughter duo have a few exercise philosophies that help them get up and moving every day – even the days when it feels extra hard to get off the couch. Here are some of their suggestions:

Spend time looking for an activity you like. Missett and her daughter say one of the biggest ways to stay active is to find a way to move doing something you love.

“It really makes it so much easier,” Missett Nelson says, adding that exercise doesn’t feel like a workout if you are enjoying it.

It doesn’t have to be Jazzercise or anything like it, she says. Just keep searching until you find something. “Maybe it’s swimming, maybe it’s hiking, maybe it’s running after the grandkids.”

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Find people you like. If you exercise with a group of people you connect with, you are more likely to keep it going, Missett says. “Whether it’s a bike club, or a running club or it’s Jazzercise, it’s finding a group of people that are like minded, that are fun, and that you enjoy.” 

She attributes part of Jazzercise’s success to putting so much emphasis on creating communities.

“I kind of feel like we were doing community before it was a cool thing to be doing.”

Jump into a future mindset. Reminding herself how she feels post-workout is a big motivator for Missett Nelson. Even on the days she’s feeling off, she knows moving her body is the best medicine.

“As I age and as things don’t recover as fast or maybe feel different, when I don't move it doesn’t feel better. And so that, really for me, is that motivation,” Missett she says.

Do your mind a favor. Missett Nelson says working out also does wonders for her mental health. “I tend to run high on anxiety. … So, I try to tell myself if I go to class, I take a walk, I work on some choreography, I’m going to feel better.” 

View exercise as part of the long game. A regular workout helps your body navigate health bumps along the road, says Missett, emphasizing that fitness should “be an ongoing thing” in life. It gives you a chance to live long and well. Missett still takes or teaches classes every day of the week except Sunday. She calls it “aging with excellence.”

“It keeps your body younger, it keeps your mind younger, and it's a heck of a lot more fun to be fit and to be able to do things as you age,” Missett said.

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