From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Dancer in All of Us

If you do work that you love, and the work fulfills you, the rest will come.

Oprah Winfrey

I knew from a very early age that I would be a dancer, but there was one little problem: I was pigeon-toed.

My parents told me that I began dancing even before I could walk. At the age of two, my mother and I were walking down the street in San Diego, where my family was stationed due to my father’s navy job. Suddenly, I heard amazing, rhythmic music coming from a dance studio. I wandered into the studio and started dancing my heart out. Surprised by my half-pint talent, the owner said to my mother, “You know, this little girl has a gift, and you need to enroll her in a class.” My mother thought it would help my foot problem, so when my family returned home to Iowa upon my father’s retirement, she enrolled me in a dance class.

Flash forward through fifteen years of dance classes and recitals—and, I’m happy to report, sans my pigeon-toe issue that was corrected through dancing—to 1969 and the city of Chicago. I was dancing professionally with a company that also happened to own a dance studio. For extra money I taught traditional jazz dance classes at the studio. In one particular class I realized that my students were there to simply drop a few dress sizes in anticipation of a high school reunion or special event, not to become Broadway dancers. But I was trying to teach them formal jazz steps and movements.

Typical of traditional dance studios, a mirror lined the entire wall behind me. As the students followed my moves, they couldn’t help but watch themselves in that long mirror, and it was very intimidating to them. I noticed that they were critical of how they looked as they tried unsuccessfully to match my moves. Attendance wasn’t great, my students were frustrated, and I wasn’t sure how to help them.

I evaluated my teaching style, trying to figure out how I could motivate my students, when suddenly it hit me: because my students were focusing on how bad they looked in the mirror rather than on me, I simply reversed dance tradition in my next class. I faced the mirror so my students would have their backs to the mirror. Now I became their mirror, and they loved it!

On the dancing heels of my room reversal debut, I thought about what I was teaching them. My students came to class to experience that special womanly camaraderie of working together toward a common goal—to get thinner and to feel that wonderful joy that comes through dance. Okay, I thought, I have to make this simpler and easier and more fun. Again, I challenged tradition. I replaced the professional dance steps with easier dance steps that even a beginner could quickly master. My new goal was to teach them to focus on the joys of the class itself and not worry about fancy routines and steps. If they were able to do this, I knew they would get fitter, lose weight and inches, tone muscle and, most important, not be so critical of themselves.

So I made my dance class much simpler, used lots of positive encouragement, and, of course, kept their backs to the mirror. My students enjoyed this new way of dancing, as did I, and the news spread; my class quickly went from a few students to fifteen, then thirty, then sixty! The room couldn’t hold any more people! I knew I was onto something, something that would come to be known as Jazzercise.

Flash forward yet another thirty-seven years. Today, Jazzercise has evolved from that small Chicago studio to 6,300 amazing and talented fitness instructors who teach a total of 20,000 classes a week to over 200,000 students in more than thirty countries! My daughter Shanna has followed in my footsteps and is executive vice president of the company; she has a great business mind and is a beautiful dancer. Her toddler daughter, Skyla—my granddaughter—loves to dance and I hope will join us in the business one day. But mind you, I’m not ready to retire my dancing shoes just yet! I still enjoy teaching classes, choreographing and appearing in our instructional videos, leading Jazzercise in numerous philanthropic endeavors such as raising money for breast cancer awareness as well as the arts ($26 million and growing), and offering our fitness programs to schools to help curb childhood obesity.

One of my proudest achievements is that Jazzercise has provided hundreds of thousands of women the opportunity to become entrepreneurs themselves; Jazzercise instructors, women from all walks of life, from all over the globe, are teaching their students the value of exercise and fitness, and to feel good about themselves and their bodies. And to this day, no mirrors are allowed!

Judi Sheppard Missett

EPILOGUE: As founder and CEO of Jazzercise, Inc., Judi Sheppard Missett is an aerobic dance pioneer, having led the way in women’s fitness. Missett has parlayed her entrepreneurial savvy and tremendous success in the fitness industry into an apparel line, aptly named Jazzertogs, and founded JM DigitalWorks, a very prominent and award-winning video production studio.

Besides her primary Jazzercise program, Missett had a desire to help children learn the values of a fit lifestyle. With this goal in mind, and also at the urging of a fellow fitness buff, she created two similar programs for our nation’s youth. The first was “Junior Jazzercise,” an after-school fitness program that continues to be a popular offering for youth and teens today. The second was the “Kids Get Fit” program. As an advisor to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, then-chairman Arnold Schwarzenegger challenged Missett and the other advisors to address the growing problem of childhood obesity and to find a way to help kids get fit. Utilizing Jazzercise as the foundation for the program, Missett, along with her network of fitness instructors, introduced the program with great success to the nation’s schools.

An entrepreneur, much-sought-after motivational speaker and business leader, Missett exudes enthusiasm and boundless energy in her lifelong journey to help and encourage others. As Missett says, “Always challenge yourself and be willing to change and try new things, because life is too short not to do that.” Well said, Judi.

Dahlynn McKowen

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