Workout preferences vary amongst individuals in many different ways, from the type of exercise to the length of time devoted to it, along with dozens of other similar stylistic choices. While many people prefer the peace of mind that accompanies silence or ambient noises during an indoor or outdoor exercise, there is no denying the stimulating effect music can have on a workout. This reality has inspired seemingly countless fitness classes and movements, perhaps none more iconic than Jazzercize.

Last month the renowned workout turned fifty and was spotlighted in a recent article published in The Atlantic. Story author Natalia Mehlman Petrzela interviewed founder Judi Sheppard Missett in the fascinating retrospective narrative, writing:

Tempting as it may be to dismiss Jazzercise to the dustbin of fitness history, the dance-cardio program—which turns 50 this month—is more than a punch line. The format founded in a dance-studio basement by Judi Sheppard Missett, the front woman in the videos, established the style and substance of “boutique fitness,” the fastest-growing segment of today’s $26 billion fitness industry. Jazzercise set the standard not only for contemporary choreographed offerings, but also for the franchise model exemplified by the likes of Curves, Pure Barre, and Barry’s Bootcamp.

Perhaps most crucially, serving a female clientele when exercise was perceived as the domain of men, Jazzercise invited women to find the “joy” and “flair” in working out. The program challenged an enduring machismo that still limits women’s full participation in many exercise environments. The feel-good fitness language that Jazzercise birthed, however, blended newly empowering affirmations with old beauty directives that prized a thin and conventional sort of prettiness—a mixed ethos that pervades U.S. fitness culture today. …

In the 1960s, this future was unimaginable for many women. For most, the idea of “going to the gym” was uncommon, and the word exercise might call to mind the Presidential Fitness Challenge common in physical-education classes or muscle- bound bodybuilders. When Missett, then a recent Northwestern graduate, took a fitness test at her local YMCA, the employee puzzled over her results: The rubric had been conceived for a male physique, and Missett’s considerable strength defied his expectations, given that “all” she did was dance.

Back at Chicago’s prestigious Gus Giordano studio, where Missett taught dance, she noticed other obstacles to women becoming physically active. Mothers sat to the side as their young daughters practiced; the idea of grown women dancing for fitness, or fun, was unfamiliar. How, Missett wondered, could she design a class that allowed women to enjoy dancing with the same abandon as their uninhibited daughters? She soon got her answer. After she toned down the technique and turned the women away from the mirror, her adult classes filled. Jazzercise—first called Jazz Dance for Fun and Fitness—was born.

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and creating a new form of exercise that appealed in large part to women helped serve an unfulfilled demand five decades ago. Now a distant memory for some, the fitness industry is much more inclusive in 2019.

To read Petrzela’s full writeup, click here.