"I absolutely loved educating people about dance and fitness when I started, and I still do today," says Jazzercise founder and CEO Judi Sheppard Missett

By Michelle Tauber
December 16, 2020 10:00 AM
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From left: Skyla Nelson, Shanna Nelson, Judi Sheppard Missett and Sienna Nelson
| Credit: Peter Yang

When Judi Sheppard Missett launched Jazzercise in 1969, she had just welcomed her daughter Shanna — and the pair were quickly a team as Judi taught as many as 35 classes a week.

"My youngest memories are of my mom putting on her leotards and tights and packing our little Honda Civic full of her sound equipment," says Shanna, who is now the president of Jazzercise and a mom herself to daughters Skyla, 18, and Sienna, 15.

"I tell my daughters these stories all the time, because when they were little, they had a fancy babysitting room that they got to go to," Shanna says in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "They would say, 'Mom, we have to go to the studio again?' I'm like, 'Listen, you're lucky you even have a room to go to. I was in a corner by myself!' "

Jazzercise President Shanna Nelson
| Credit: Peter Yang

Judi's determination paid off, and today Jazzercise is a $95 million business with 8,500 franchisees around the world. Paving the way for everything from the home-video craze led by Jane Fonda to group exercise classes like Zumba, Jazzercise revolutionized the fitness industry and is still going strong 51 years later. In 2019, the company launched its first streaming service, Jazzercise on Demand, which now has 27,000 subscribers.

Through it all, Jazzercise has remained a family-owned, women-run business led by Judi, 76, and Shanna, 51, both of whom still teach classes every week near their homes in Carlsbad, Calif. This year they were joined by a third generation — Skyla, who became an instructor when she turned 18 in August.

From left: Shanna, Judi and Skyla, all modeling fitnesswear trends through the decades.
| Credit: Peter Yang

"I knew it was a huge deal for my mom and grandma," says Skyla. Judi — whom Skyla and Sienna call "Jami" — "gave me a big hug," adds Skyla, "and said she was going to be the first one at my first class."

Jazzercise instructor Skyla Nelson
| Credit: Peter Yang

The full-circle moment was just the latest chapter in Judi’s extraordinary journey, which began when her mother, June, enrolled her in dance classes at age 2 to help correct her pigeon toes.

For much more on Judi Sheppard Missett, Shanna Nelson and Jazzercise, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

"The story my mom told is that I started dancing around the studio, and the instructor came over and said, 'She is really good,' " recalls Judi, whose family traveled for her father’s Navy career.

Jazzercise founder and CEO Judi Sheppard Missett
| Credit: Peter Yang

A dancer was born, and Judi later realized that other women — especially mothers — could benefit from group dance classes.

"I absolutely loved educating people about dance and fitness when I started, and I still do today. No matter what hurdle was put in front of me, I thought, 'I don’t want to stop.' "