I like to tell my son, now 15, the story of how I found out I was pregnant with him. In a Jazzercise class in December, 1994, I tripped over my own two feet and fell right on the base of my spine. I could still move my fingers and toes, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t paralyzed, but I couldn’t get up. Someone called an ambulance, and I was taken to Princeton Hospital, where I lay strapped to a board, in a head lock, for a good hour. After all it wasn’t a very exciting case: white chick falls on butt in aerobics class. But finally the nurse, who wanted to take an X-ray, asked me if there was a chance I could be pregnant. I looked at the ceiling tiles and said, nearly inaudibly, yes, I’m 33, I’m married (thinking, duh, not that those are prerequisites). Blood was drawn and another 45 minutes went by, during which time my husband showed up.
When the nurse came rushing in and announced, “Mrs. Saxon, you’re pregnant!” you could’ve knocked me over with a feather, only I was already strapped to a board. The nurse was apoplectic — “Nothing good ever happens in the ER! You must wait til Christmas Eve, and tell your whole family at once!” They determined I was fine to go home, and as they unstrapped me from the board and handed me a cup of OJ, my Jazzercise instructor, Mary Jane Brady, walked in. We hugged and cried and laughed. “Won’t this be a story to tell your grandchildren?” she said. How many people can say that their exercise instructor zoomed to their side at the hospital?
I had already known Brady for seven years at that point. In 1986, when a co-worker recommended Jazzercise, I started taking Brady’s class at Hightstown High School. In a giant class of 120 I fell under her spell — part cheerleader, part therapist, part stand-up comic, part life coach, part BFF — along with everyone else in the class, some of whom had been with her since she started teaching Jazzercise in 1981.
This month Brady celebrates her 30th year teaching Jazzercise with a week of free classes starting Saturday, June 11, and an all-out bash for current students on Friday, June 17.
In February, 1987, a year after I started doing Jazzercise, I wrote a cover story for U.S. 1 about this phenomenally successful exercise program founded in 1972 by Judi Sheppard Missett, who started out teaching jazz dance in a rented room in a Boys Club in southern California. When Missett discovered students were intimidated by the competitive nature of professional dance —they were really just there for the exercise — she combined the two and Jazzercise was born, blending the fun of jazz dance and the physical benefits of aerobics. Today Jazzercise Inc. has 7,800 instructors in 32 countries; there are 32,000 classes weekly. Missett, now 65, still choreographs all the routines, but has passed the baton of the company presidency to her daughter, Shannon.
Routines are choreographed by Missett to a healthy mix of top 40s, oldies, jazz, and even country. A careful sequence of routines effect the correct “workout intensity curve” of the heart rate during each 60-minute class, which includes warm-up, light or heavy cardio, toning for the quads, gluts, abs, and arms, stretching, and cool down.
Today it is a fusion of a dance-based cardio segment, Pilates, yoga, and other influences including resistance training, kickboxing, ballet, and body sculpting — all in one hour. “We use music from Lady Gaga to Michael Buble to Springsteen. Students hear top of the charts and old classics, that makes it fun,” says Brady. “The iPod was our saving grace.” In the old days, instructors had six seconds in between to change those little 45 rpm records, then cassettes, then CDs, which had to be purchased through Jazzercise. “Now we just drag and drop from iTunes, making a playlist for each class,” says Brady.
Brady, who just turned 60, doesn’t look a day over 35, and her body will make you run to hide all the Oreos in your house. She was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx and Staten Island, under the thumb of a strict Italian father, a photographer and camera man, and a mother who, Brady says, was a homemaker and a phenomenally good cook who believed the more you ate, the healthier you were.
After pursuing a secretarial major in college for two years, in 1971 Brady married her Catholic high school sweetheart, Jim Brady (who recently retired as the custodian of records for the Board of Social Services, Mercer County). Three months later she was pregnant with the first of three daughters. She got hooked on Jazzercise at the Nottingham Firehouse and became certified soon after. The Bradys just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
Today she has more than 300 Jazzercise students. In 1987 I wrote that taking a class with her is like talking to a girlfriend on the phone. She announces births, engagements. She makes everything fun — or funny. In a routine with a stomp, she says, “Stomp on your boss, stomp on your bad day.” In an ab routine on the floor, she says, “Don’t you feel like you’re at the gynecologist? God, the lights in here are bright. It’s like giving birth or something.”
Back then I also wrote, “Her goal? To find a Jazzercise studio to call her very own.” Now, 24 years later, Brady’s search is over. In december she moved into her own space in Windsor Center in East Windsor, where she and her team of instructors offer 20 classes weekly.
The economic downturn and the glut of available commercial real estate has actually served Brady well. For 29 years she offered her classes through the recreation and community education departments of Plainsboro, West Windsor, and East Windsor, holding class in the gyms of various schools. When East Windsor’s community ed program closed last spring, and West Windsor revamped its community ed program this past fall in ways that made Brady realize she wouldn’t be able to retain the control and low prices she and her students were used to, she knew she had to find her own space, and fast. (She still offers three classes a week at Plainboro Municipal Building.)
But finding a space large enough and affordable enough seemed a Herculean task. “I had all those students depending on me. How do you have customers and no store? People would say to me all the time, ‘If you can’t find a space, do you know how many lives it’s going to impact?’ For years my class managers and I have bought a lottery ticket every weekend — so that if we win I can get a center; that’s how much of a dream it was, like winning the lottery.”
Brady says a little bit of divine intervention saved the day. “I am a true believer in the power of prayer. I prayed for an answer to where I would go with my students. I woke up one day in November with the Windsor Center facility name in my head, drove to get the phone number from the sign in front of the building — which I had looked at a couple of years ago, and it was not affordable — and called and found out the building was being purchased by a new owner in two weeks. The new owner had space, understood my urgency to lease space, and worked to let me into the building as quickly as possible. We moved in in December. This is still unbelievable to me because I spoke to so many realtors and got nowhere. The timing with the Windsor Center being purchased by a new owner who would talk to me was truly a miracle.”
But the miracle of course isn’t the building; it’s the impact Brady has on her students, and the sense of community her classes creates. Recently checking her student database, Brady reports that 23 percent have been attending 10 or more years, 48 percent five or more years, and 13 students have been with her 25 years or more. And 60 percent of her students work fulltime.
Lois Cormack, a Robbinsville resident and senior accounts payable administrator at L’Oreal USA, started Jazzercise with Brady in the early 1990s and also became a class manager, who helps students register and check in. “I gained confidence through my Jazzercise experience, and it has been instrumental in overcoming my shyness and talking to groups. I was recently asked by my department to do training in our accounting system. Soon I will be giving refresher classes to my department and will be traveling to different company sites to explain our payables process. If it weren’t for my experiences with Jazzercise I doubt I would have the confidence to undertake such as task.”
Linda Edenfield, an East Windsor resident who has worked as a data programmer/analyst at the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority for 26 years, has been taking Jazzercise with Brady since the early ‘90s. In 1994 she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and needed surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. “After my surgery, while waiting to find out what my treatment would be, I would be back to Jazzercise, glad that I could feel like life was back to normal. Chemo was difficult but after each treatment when I was feeling better (and waiting for the next one), I would love the fact that I could finally get myself back to Jazzercise and take one of Mary Jane’s classes, baseball cap and all. It really lifted my spirits. The students were all so supportive. It is now 17 years later, and I am glad to say that I am in good health and still Jazzercizing.”
Felecia Bourjolly, who works for the state in the administrative office of the courts’ family practice division, lives in Burlington and commutes 35 minutes to work — and to Brady’s classes. Significantly overweight, she says she reached out to Brady for help in November, 2009. “At her advice, I committed to Jazzercising at least three times a week and to keeping a journal of my food intake. I have lost over 80 pounds by Jazzercising and modifying my food intake. I have tried gyms, Zumba, belly dancing, among other forms of exercise, and I have found that Jazzercise gives me a complete aerobic and strength training workout. It does not feel like exercise as I dance to the choreographed routines. I absolutely love it.”
Kathleen Shambe, a Plainsboro resident and senior manager of general accounting for the New Jersey School Boards Association in Trenton, has been taking Jazzercise with Brady for 24 years. “I know this because I have been married that long. At first I loved Jazzercise because it was `dancey.’ If you are like me and only get to dance at the occasional wedding, it is just not enough. The routines are changed frequently so no one ever gets bored. There is no pressure to be perfect. Some days you just don’t have the energy to work hard but you still go and move and feel better afterward.
“Now about Mary Jane. I don’t know a person who does not love her. Those of us who have been in her class for a long time, and there are many, have shared class in every school gym, church hall, firehouse, synagogue, and even dance hall in the area. We have followed her and followed her. And now we have followed her to her own center.”
Shambe and a close group of friends, ranging in age from 43 to 81, from Brady’s Saturday morning class go out for coffee afterwards and catch up on each others’ lives. “That quick cup can turn into 90 minutes of discussion about the state, education, children, husbands, you name it. These are some of my closest friends, and I have Jazzercise to thank for them.” Recently, Lorraine Lemmons, who Shambe and her friends affectionately called their “soul sister,” succumbed to her battle with cancer. “Three white chicks in class helped her through her journey and were with her at the end,” says Shambe. “I don’t think you get that in a health club.”
Brady has also had plenty of students who have stopped for periods of time due to family commitments, job loss, divorce, you name it; in other words, life happens. “I have people who used to come to me five and ten years ago, and they’ve come back to me and remember how good they felt. Life gets in the way. What do women do? We put ourselves last. Some have gone to the gym, thinking they would like having all those classes. But then they come back and say, ‘Jazzercise was always fun, it was always worth what I had to do to get there.’”
Though Brady admits her husband would like to travel, she is far from ready. “I can’t let go of this yet. I can’t imagine my life without it. I live by this rule: be fair and honest with everybody and never give up on your dream. Then you can go through every day with a clear head. I let people know, it’s all good.”
Jazzercise Grand Opening Week, 104 Windsor Center Drive, East Windsor. Free classes the week of Saturday, June 10, through Friday, June 17; for schedule visit www.jazzplainsboro-windsors.com. Mary Jane Brady’s 30th anniversary party celebration classes, for currently enrolled students, take place on Friday, June 17, at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. (Note: Jazzercise classes are also offered at the Plainsboro Municipal Building, 41 Plainboro Road, Plainsboro.) 609-890-3252.