November 16, 2007

Jazzercise Doesn’t Look Like It’s Nearly 40


I had a mental image of my classmates wearing leotards and tights, hot pink headbands and possibly leg warmers. I had visions of big hair and ponytails. I could almost hear the '80s music, thumping "Flashdance" style.

But whatever I was expecting when I signed up for a Jazzercise class, it wasn't K.T. Tunstall.

During a lesson at the Wayne YWCA, the popular songstress's "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree" was one of the surprisingly updated music choices used to power the workout.

So was Christina Aguilera's "Candyman" and the Shakira-Beyonc duet "Beautiful Liar." But instructor and franchise owner Judy Berlin, 57, didn't let any of the divas get the best of her. Standing at the head of the auditorium on a platform and equipped with a rock-star headset microphone, she led a class that filled the entire gym-auditorium in an energetic series of routines.

Fighting the public image of cheesy '80s fitness wear has been a "constant battle" for Berlin and other proponents of the franchised fitness program.

"That is the image that some people have in their minds," said Berlin. "But Jazzercise has always been on the cutting edge of the fitness industry, and you can't find too many programs that have been around for 38 years."

The key to success has been keeping up with the times. Every 10 weeks, Jazzercise headquarters in California sends 30 new "routines," or choreographed exercise bits set to current songs. This includes warm-up, aerobic and strength routines, which are used in combination in every hour-long Jazzercise class across the nation.

Instructors like Berlin then use a combination of new and old routines within a strictly proportioned formula to create what is called the intensity curve (a measure of exertion that helps bring the heart rate up and keep it there).

Every lesson starts with a slow warm-up. I was feeling chilly in my shorts but had no trouble with this part. Then we started building up the heart rate with toe taps, lunges, arm rolls and punches until we reached the first peak. And the second. And the third.

Three exertion peaks

The intensity curve, Berlin explained during the lesson, consists of one warm-up routine, eight or nine aerobic routines arranged into three exertion peaks designed to heighten the heart rate, and then four to six strength routines involving mats and free weights.

I kept up fairly well during the first and second peaks, perhaps even more energetically in the second than the first. Berlin shouted encouragements in between instructions, with some personal shout- outs to long-term students thrown in the mix. She also had the 40 students, who ranged from me in my 20s to an 80-year-old, switch up our positions from our original rows and "say hello" to new neighbors.

"It allows me to see if they can talk while they're moving, and it also allows everyone to meet someone new," she explained. "You might run into someone at ShopRite and say, 'Oh, I know you from Jazzercise!' "

But as we reached the third peak, I began to feel a bit of strain. I started lifting my legs with a little less gusto, doing my best to keep up with Aguilera's polished riffs. It helped that the intensity curve was posted on the wall behind Berlin, so that I knew the end was in sight.

By the time we dragged mats to the middle of the floor for strength training, the woman next to me was ready to sit down. "I can't get up!" she said, wiping her brow.

It's all right to take a short break, said Berlin afterward. Because the class is for all levels, students do whatever they can in a non-competitive atmosphere. Berlin tries to teach so that everyone can focus on his or her own fitness routines.

Mixing up basic moves

"People have different degrees of coordination, and there are people who have been coming for years who are always a step behind," she said. "But nobody cares. Everybody's thinking about what they're doing."

However, most people who come consistently to classes do learn enough to feel "successful," said Berlin. "The aerobic part is based in dance, but once you've been to a few classes, you will have seen all the basic movements that we use," she explained. "[The dance move] 'Candyman' had knee lifts and heels. Well, you'll see heels and knee lifts in other songs. After awhile, you hear [the dance move] 'grapevine,' and you just go. You hear the cue and you automatically transfer from heels to feet."

And as for me? I didn't do too shabby, Berlin said.

Olivia Newton-John would be proud.


What to expect

You should wear: Loose, comfortable exercise clothing that allows for sweat evaporation; supportive shoes that absorb shock.

Class contents: A 60- to 65-minute class with a warm-up segment, an aerobic segment, a cool-down segment and a muscle-toning segment. The heart rate is brought up and maintained through three peaks of intensity during the aerobic segment. New music and choreography is introduced every 10 weeks.

Equipment used: None for the most part, with optional free weights. Bring a water bottle.

Calories burned: 250 to 400.

For best results: Attend class two to three times a week, eventually increasing to four or five.


* YM-YWCA: Various classes, mornings and evenings, all days except Saturday. 1 Pike Drive, Wayne. For more information, call 973- 956-1660 or see

* More franchise locations listed at, including Clifton, Fort Lee, Nutley, Paramus, Park Ridge, Westwood, Woodcliff Lake and Wyckoff.


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