Vicki Russell, left, excercises with a smile during a traditional Jazzercise class in Medford. - Denise Baratta

Jazzercise at 41

An infectious drumbeat begins to thump from the speakers on the stage. Twenty women face the front and await instructions for the first song of their 9 o'clock Monday-morning Jazzercise class.

These women range in age from 50 to 80, and several have attended Jazzercise classes at Roxy Ann Grange in East Medford for more than two decades. The log-cabin walls contrast with more modern fluorescent lights, ceiling fans and hardwood floors in this performance hall.

This feeling of old and new captures the spirit of Jazzercise. Begun in 1969 at the leading edge of the 1970s fitness craze, Jazzercise is a 60-minute aerobics, dance, strength and flexibility class that has managed to survive subsequent fitness fads by evolving while staying true to its roots.

"A lot of trends come and go: Pilates, yoga, core strengthening, aerobics

"We've been doing it all for 40 years," says Denise Francis, instructor and Medford Jazzercise franchise owner.

Francis is one of 7,800 franchised instructors in 32 countries who receive training that includes specific choreography for the approximately 32 songs that are used in any given year. While some of these songs are old jazz and disco standards, the current Top-40 tune, "Soul Sister," is part of today's class.

"You can go anywhere in the world and take Jazzercise and feel comfortable — you might not know all the songs, but you'll recognize some of them. It makes it easy for people who travel a lot," says Francis.

Many working women attend the evening classes, where the age range is 20 to 60, according to Francis. The tenor of Jazzercise classes appeals to those seeking refuge from the rat race.

"Gyms are too competitive. This is more social," says Medford resident Susi Hebblewhite, who began taking Jazzercise classes in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1982 and switched to this Medford location 15 years ago.

For those who attend class in the same location, lifelong friendships are a bonus.

"We've been in this building for 22 years. A lot of our kids went to school together. We even have some mother-daughter teams. The daughters are just catching on," Francis adds.

On stage, instructor Michelle Burnett demonstrates the steps and arm movements of the first song. Choreography is the core of Jazzercise: Founder Judi Sheppard Missett is a choreographer.

Burnett already was an aerobics instructor four years ago when a friend of hers encouraged her to try Jazzercise.

"I thought, 'Is this still around?' I remember it from elementary school. I came to one class, and I was hooked," Burnett says.

After 35 minutes — with short water breaks — the students pick up their hand weights to add strengthening exercises to the dance routines. For the final, slower segment of the hour-long class, they unroll their mats and lie down. Stretching and strengthening the legs, arms and abdominals are the focus of this part of the class.

The women in today's class wear sweatpants or tights. The unspoken dress code leans more toward functional than fashionable.

"It has changed with the time. It used to be hot-pink tights and leg warmers and headbands," says Kathy Vann, who drives to the class several times per week from Jacksonville.

"Today's fashion is comfortable. There's no pressure," says Burnett.

This lack of pressure is evident in the teasing that follows a missed move resulting in a collision between two students.

A cork bulletin board fills one corner of the dance hall. Snapshots of local Jazzercise students and instructors are mixed in with announcements. The pictures were taken during fundraisers and other events to support charities.

"All (Jazzercise) instructors are urged to be involved in community service," explains Francis.

Local instructors have recently participated in events for ACCESS Inc., Relay for Life and Special Olympics.

Beneath all the fun and friendships that Jazzercise students experience, the class is first and foremost a path to lifelong health.

"This is a five-star program," says 71-year-old Lorraine Werblow of Medford. "I've worked out all my aches and pains here. My posture got better. They do all the things here that the physical therapists say."

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