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Culture, Community and Commitment

Many people might say that group fitness became part of our culture back in the early 1970s, when Judi Sheppard Missett introduced Jazzercise® and Jacki Sorensen launched Aerobic Dancing. Others might argue that our awareness of group “aerobics” began when Jamie Lee Curtis showed her Perfect body in the 1985 movie. And there is no denying the impact Richard Simmons has had on our concept of “fitness for everyone” for more than 30 years. But what long-lasting impact have these pioneers had? In other words, how has group fitness affected our culture? How has it changed our lives outside of the exercise room?

In the Beginning

The year was 1969. Although they didn’t know each other, Judi Sheppard Missett and Jacki Sorensen were setting the groundwork for the birth of “aerobic dance fitness.” Both women had a background in dance and performance, and both discovered a need in the community for some type of movement that was both achievable and fun. “I was teaching jazz dance classes,” says Missett, “and realized students weren’t returning because it was too hard. I wanted to make the class more encouraging so that students could experience the joy of dance, but not the pain.”

Missett used her jazz and theater training to create a program that later became Jazzercise. “Once we moved to Southern California in 1972, I really began to grow my business. I had 15 students at my first class and 30 at my second. There were 60 students in my third class. One of my students suggested [we call the class] ‘Jazzercise,’ and a friend helped me register and copyright the name.”

Meanwhile, Sorensen was combining the fitness benefits of jogging with her love of dance to create Aerobic Dancing, which she offered at various U.S. Air Force bases. That led to a fitness television program for military wives in Puerto Rico. After her move to New Jersey, Sorensen began teaching her program at the YMCA, only to see it rapidly expand from there.

In many ways, whether we call it group cardio, group aerobics, dance fitness or its current name of “group fitness,” by now the concept seems to have been around forever. In reality, however, things are very different today. Do a mental checklist of what you need in order to put together a class: clothes, music, shoes, sound system, microphone, proper flooring, catchy title, computerized registration system, research, training, professional colleagues and organizations, etc. Now take that all away, along with the businesses that have sprung up around those items, and you start to see the big picture.

Fitness footwear alone is a multibillion-dollar industry. Buying workout clothes is as easy as shopping at Target or ordering online. Music is pre-made, with the beats and mix arranged exactly to our class specifications. There is no more going across the room every 3 minutes to move the needle to a new song, no strapping on heavy-duty bras to accommodate the “bouncy movements” and no tape-wrapping our shins because running shoes are the only choice, and yet aren’t very suitable for doing aerobics.

“Because of my dance background, I taught in bare feet or jazz shoes and wore full-bottom leotards (mostly black) with footless or stirrup tights,” says Missett. “Some students wore T-shirts and shorts, but there weren’t any places to buy ‘fitness’ wear. We shopped at dance shops, such as Capezio or Danskin. When we first started, we used records and albums. I taught 25–30 classes per week and lost my voice, so I got a microphone. They weren’t nearly as sophisticated as they are now, and I had to try about 40 different mikes before I found one I could use. Eventually we evolved to tapes, then CD players. Now I run everything off my laptop with my iPod, which makes packing my luggage very easy.”

Aerobics Hits It Big

If you don’t recognize the name Christine MacIntyre, you will in a moment. An aerobics dance enthusiast, she and Joe Weider launched SHAPE magazine in 1981. According to Barbara Harris, the former editor in chief (and current editorial advisor), “SHAPE and group exercise in some ways seemed to grow up together. MacIntyre wanted to present credible, correct and safe information in a way that would inspire and motivate readers and make SHAPE a magazine that consumers could trust. Since group aerobics was the primary mode of exercise (for our demographics) at the time, so that was our focus. The early issues were full of aerobics dance information and highlighted experts such as Jacki Sorensen and Joanie Greggains. Early covers featured celebrities wearing leg warmers!”

Perhaps the most famous leg warmers from the early 1980s belonged to Jane Fonda, who started her own workout studio in Los Angeles after teaching in Utah while shooting the movie The Electric Horseman. Wearing a black-and-red-striped leotard with black tights and leg warmers, Fonda came out with her workout video and book in 1982 and the craze was on! Group fitness was now associated with celebrity; with health as beauty; and with success. Those who couldn’t get to Fonda’s studio could go to their local store and buy the video. By 1986, Fonda had sold more than 4 million copies of her books and videotapes, and the concept of working out at home to a fitness video became established.

Fonda was not alone. Whereas she used her celebrity status to promote fitness, at the other end of the spectrum was Richard Simmons, who become a celebrity because of fitness. Simmons grew up in New Orleans, where “lard was a food group and dessert mandatory!” After hitting 268 pounds, Simmons took control of his life and weight, and moved across the country to Los Angeles. In the same city that made Fonda’s workouts popular, Simmons opened a studio catering to the overweight and unsure, and it was an instant success. His appeal to the “average” person was so strong that Simmons had his own Emmy-winning television fitness program for 4 years. Now it’s commonplace to have access to fitness workouts on TV, thanks in part to the trail that Simmons blazed.

As group fitness became an established part of our culture, music and movies started to reflect and affect the activity. Besides the film Perfect, which had a debatable impact on people’s perceptions of group workouts, there was also Flashdance. Although not about group fitness, this movie propelled Marine Jahan (Jennifer Beals’s dance double) to later fame with her Freedanse workout videos. And how about Olivia Newton-John wearing her headband and singing “Let’s Get Physical”? That song was played in thousands of classes! And where was the music video played? On a new station called MTV (Music Television). The music, fashion, choreography and attitudes were all intertwined with group fitness—Madonna, Tina Turner and Paula Abdul probably made fortunes from the songs instructors played in classes. And although compact disks (CDs) weren’t invented specifically for group fitness, they came out in the 1980s, making it a lot easier for instructors to tote around and play their workout music.

As research emerged that proved the correlations between exercise, health, absentee rates and worker productivity, companies started to invest in their employees’ health with on-site fitness facilities, fitness insurance discounts, club membership subsidies and rewards. For example, Xerox opened nine fitness facilities and a private “fitness village” in Virginia that catered to 56,000 employees. Companies such as Scherer Brothers Lumber in Minneapolis paid additional “well pay” to employees who didn’t miss work owing to illness, and membership in fitness-oriented professional organizations grew.

Group Fitness—An Industry

As group fitness evolved from a “no pain, no gain,” “feel the burn,” aesthetics-based “fad” to its current position as a legitimate, established part of a healthy lifestyle, the industry itself became more corporate and standardized. Instructor-training courses, certifications, research, minimum job requirements, books and manuals, access to choreography and continuing education seem normal and ubiquitous now; yet these things all sprang from
pioneers who had the foresight, or at least the courage (and concomitant foolhardiness), to push the industry forward.

One achiever was Sheri Poe, founder of the women’s footwear company Rykä Inc. Just as MacIntyre used her love of aerobics to start SHAPE, Poe used that same love (and her dislike of uncomfortable shoes) to create a million-dollar company. Before 1988, when Rykä shoes were introduced to the market, most group fitness footwear was based on men’s shoe designs “downsized” to fit women. All that exercise made Poe’s legs and back ache, so she took matters into her own feet, so to speak. You could say that Poe made a huge impact thanks to high-impact!

By the late 1980s, group fitness was entrenched in our lexicon and lives. Many people were creating videos, music, books, new programs and so on, but it was still possible to rise above the crowd. Tamilee Webb and her Buns of Steel video were so popular that, 22 titles later, the expression “buns of steel” has entered into our everyday vocabulary and is understood separately from the original context. Even though it wasn’t her first video, Buns of Steel was the one that made Webb (and her body) instantly
famous. It also changed her financial picture, as she went from being $19 in the red to commanding an enviable income. Since then, Webb’s combined sales have topped 10 million units, which include more than 50 consumer videos, DVDs and books.

Webb, who jokingly refers to herself as “Ms. Buns of Steel,” relates how she discovered the strength of the video’s impact. “Some people bought it as a joke but then discovered it was a great workout. I didn’t realize the impact until I saw my royalty checks triple in numbers, and people recognized me wherever I went. One of the most unusual experiences I had was in the airport. I was bending over, and a guy tapped me on the back. When I popped my head up, he said, ‘I thought I recognized that butt. You’re Tamilee Webb.’ I was shocked someone would know it was me only from the back end! [Back at the start,] it was hard to get used to everyone wanting to check out your butt. [Almost 20 years later,] it’s even harder.”

It’s Raining Men

Because of its roots in dance, group fitness was intimidating to many men, and getting them through the door was a challenge. But key people and events altered that perception.

In 1985, Scott Cole, now an internationally known fitness expert, was watching the National Aerobic Championships (NAC) on television with his nephew, Matt, who proclaimed, “You could do that!” So Cole did. “I had always enjoyed bringing a nice level of testosterone to cheerleading, and felt that I wanted to bring a ‘maleness’ to aerobics,” he says. “That year I entered the championship regionals. In 1986, three of us—Terry Lilly, Noah York and myself—entered as a team and won. 1987 turned out to be the year of the guys, as we became the team champions. Following that, we did a layout for SHAPE magazine; then I was featured in Men’s Fitness and USA Weekend. There’s even a photo of a bunch of us guys carrying Jane Fonda onstage at the IDEA [convention] in 1987 to receive her Lifetime Achievement Award.”

With a combination of fame, timing, looks, a warm personality and a fortuitous move to the Karen Voight Fitness and Dance Center in West Hollywood, California, Cole went from being an aerobics champion to instructing celebrities such as Kevin Bacon and Bronson Pinchot. Along with Jeff Vandiver (the 1987 Individual National Aerobics Champion), Cole took their team-teaching class around the world, giving men an even higher profile in the world of aerobics.

At about the same time that Cole was training for the NAC, a Jazzercise instructor from New Orleans named Kenny Harvey became an NAC ambassador. This was an important role, as the NAC was positioning itself to eventually get sportaerobics (as it’s now known) included as an Olympic event. Added to the World Games in 1997, sportaerobics is the only competitive discipline that has its roots 100% in aerobics. In order to be included in the Olympic Games program of events for men, a sport must be widely practiced by men in at least 75 countries and on four continents (for women, it’s 40 countries and three continents). Harvey had been thinking big ever since he quit architecture, and he wanted to make better money in fitness. He combined his abilities and used them to cement a relationship between group fitness and men.

Where can you find lots of testosterone all in one place (at least in the United States)? At a football game, of course! As district manager for Jazzercise in Louisiana and Mississippi, Harvey coordinated with the New Orleans Saints to arrange a 6-minute halftime show performed entirely by instructors in his region. After that first show, bookings followed across the U.S. and even in Japan. Combining halftime events with charity fundraising, Harvey and Jazzercise have performed for the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers; for the Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic; for Nippon Ham baseball in Japan; and even at soccer games, tennis tournaments and rodeos.

Transitioning from bucking broncos to bikes, men have taken their sweaty place in group fitness. Harris has an interesting observation about one of the things that made group fitness “cool” for men. “I remember when Johnny G came out with Spinning® in 1989. Some people may disagree with me, but it seemed to open the gates to a different level of intensity, and there was a new willingness to sweat. Maybe it was because the mode was male-friendly, or there were ‘bragging rights’ involved with this type of ‘hardcore’ workout; but it seemed like that was when consumers had a mind shift toward a more athletic outlook, and we really noticed an increase in the numbers of men participating in group classes.”

Group Fitness on an Intimate Level

Billions of dollars, millions of people, scores of countries—it’s easy to bandy about the big numbers, but group fitness has also had tremendous impact on a more personal level. What has it done for you and people just like you?

Let’s start with some ladies in North Dakota who started exercising with Terry Ferebee Eckmann, PhD, associate professor at Minot State University, more than 20 years ago when Eckmann began teaching what later became her “Prime Time” and “Recycled Teenagers” classes. “I met Terry back when she was in college and I was the dean of women at Minot State University,” says Garnet Cox with a chuckle. “Those people are still my friends—in spite of me! Through Terry’s exercise program I became friends with people in the community whose paths I might not otherwise have crossed. It’s not just exercise; it’s [being with] your friends. We go out of town on weekends to check out new restaurants. We celebrate birthdays and holidays together. I’m 73 now and look forward to being active with my friends.”

Another of Eckmann’s longtime students, Irene Goosen, also of Minot, adds her story: “My husband died 19 years ago and I wanted something to do to get myself out and about. I saw an ad in the paper for the class and thought I’d give it a try. I just plain liked it. We all came early to class and then would get together
afterward too. The students really turned out to be a support group. I still look forward to seeing the gals and getting the gossip. And you’re jacked up if you miss and don’t tell anyone—then you get a phone call. I’m not all that fit, but I keep moving, which amazes my doctor. I wouldn’t be mobile if it weren’t for the fitness [classes].”

And then there’s love. Deny and Sharlene D’Jock of Byron, Minnesota, share a last name now, but they didn’t back in 2000. Both of them were members of the Rochester Athletic Club, but only Sharlene participated in the group classes. From his spot on the weight room floor, Deny would see her in class and wanted to figure out a way to meet her. “I was not one to do much aerobics, but my only way to meet this woman was to get myself into that class and work my way to her side. I knew the instructor and asked if she knew whether my mystery woman was single.” After receiving an affirmative response, Deny decided to join that “darned box-and-sweat class.” “It was a fast-paced workout, and there were quite a few people. One day, from the opposite side of the room, I saw Sharlene fall down and hurt her leg,” he recalls. “After class I got my chance to talk to her, and I asked how her leg was. The instructors were rooting for me, so the next time class met, they paired us up, and we laughed our way through class. I asked her out afterward to Dairy Queen. After a year we were engaged, and married a year after that. It’s been a great time with my wife Sharlene. And she loves to tell the story of how she ‘fell’ for me.”

The Ripple Effect

Whether you were part of the early years or are just now discovering the joys and rewards of group fitness, the impact this phenomenon has had is all around us, in obvious and subtle ways. Both tangibly and intangibly, it has permeated and inspired our society. Perhaps the most important contribution that group fitness has made can be illustrated by a note written by Ricka Powers of Frisco, Colorado, whose recently deceased mother had been a participant in Eckmann’s classes. “Dear Terry,” she wrote, “I am Shirley Hanson’s daughter. After she died, I found a poem you sent her and the class, along with a photo of you and her, kept by her bedside. She treasured the memories of her aerobics classes and your leadership. Several of her aerobics friends were at the funeral. Her years with you and the gang were precious to her, and I think she would be pleased that I try and contact you, to thank you from her heart.”


Concerned about your place in the new fitness industry? We have 40 years of experience supporting pros just like you! Let’s create a new wellness paradigm together—IDEAfit+ is the extra edge you need. Once you team up with IDEA, be sure to take full advantage of all the benefits of membership.

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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