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Jazzercise is 50, and it has evolved beyond lunges, legwarmers and leotards

WATCH: Jazzercise has been keeping people moving and grooving for 50 years

Nothing screams the 1980s quite like Jazzercise β€” the fitness program features some of the most iconic elements of the decade, from the perms to the nylons.

But, what has become one of the biggest fitness franchises ever was actually founded decades before this: in 1969.

This year, the franchise turns 50 years old, and the company has boogied way past the era when it gained its fame and has morphed into a modern global empire that continues to keep people around the world moving. Jazzercise “students” from around the world celebrated the fitness pioneer’s golden anniversary with a bash in San Diego, Calif., in June.

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The company rakes in more than $100 million per year and has thousands of franchises in more than 30 countries, and its CEO and founder is a familiar face that Jazzercise fans around the world, and many others, recognize: Judi Sheppard Missett, the passionate front person in the vintage Jazzercise tapes.

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Sheppard Missett recently launched her book, “Building a Business with a Beat,” detailing just how she turned her passion for, as she’d say, “moving and grooving,” into a world-renowned business.

The now-75-year-old’s love for dance started very early on in her life: she took her first dance class at two-and-a-half years old.

She founded Jazzercise in a Chicago dance studio in 1969, teaching her own aerobic dance class based on classical jazz dance.

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Fewer than two decades later, Sheppard Missett had recruited more than 1,000 instructors, and her franchise got so big that at one point, it was considered to be the second-fastest-growing franchise in the U.S.

But, Sheppard Missett (and probably many of the other instructors) have shed their leg warmers in place of modern workout gear, and the routines have evolved, too β€” the Jazzercise website says it blends dance with Pilates, kickboxing and strength training. It also calls it “the original dance party workout.”

In many ways, it is; it has helped shape many of the fitness fads of today, like Zumba and pole dancing, says Dr. Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor with the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

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“I think we really have to thank Jazzercise for really getting us to rethink what exercise could be,” said Dr. Martin Ginis. “It really was the first time that we saw group-based exercise being promoted on a population level and specifically being targeted to women.”

But, the program that encouraged people to build their own flawless bodies had its, well, flaws.

“Jazzercise gendered aerobic exercise, meaning it was a type of exercise really targeted towards women,” said Dr. Martin Ginis, “and I think a lot of men looked at aerobic exercise as something strictly feminine…something that only girls or women do.”

Modern-day Jazzercise, however, seems to be more inclusive β€” the website features video with men, as well as people of different body types, also doing the lessons.

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Click to play video: 'Dancing with divas'
Dancing with divas

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To truly see what today’s Jazzercise classes look like, I visited one myself. It was a 9:30 a.m. class in Thornhill, Ont., and there was, in fact, one man in the class.

There were people of all ages in the class, and its instructor, Claudia Wetzel, says there are even people in their 70s who come to get their groove on (and break a sweat).

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“We just involve everybody and anybody [who] loves to dance,” said Wetzel, who has been a teacher with Jazzercise for 23 years.
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What they danced to has also been modernized β€” the soundtrack usually associated with Jazzercise (featuring disco tracks from bands like KC and the Sunshine Band) have been swapped for more updated tunes from Sean Paul and David Guetta).

Dawne Barbieri, a student in the class (and a Jazzercise instructor), credits the company with changing her life. She had a hip replacement two years ago, and she says the fitness program was part of her recovery.

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“I can’t thank Jazzercise enough for giving me back my mobility,” said Barbieri.

But, does Jazzercise still keep people fit? Leila Bates says it does β€” she lost 10 lbs. in about 12 weeks.

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She said, “I just saw my body completely change really quickly, and [Jazzercise] is really fun.”

That’s what seems to be the biggest draw to the class β€” nearly every “student” cracked a smile at some point in the lesson because who can resist a good dance party?

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