When you think of Jazzercise you probably envision women in leg warmers and leotards bouncing to the beats of 80s pop music. But while the spandex and oversized shirts of yore may be back in style, Jazzercise has changed greatly.

“That is so long gone,” said Bellingham Jazzercise instructor, Meghann Mullen. Mullen started teaching Jazzercise when she was 21 and she’s just as excited about it nine years later. Jazzercise gave her an important physical outlet but it also gave her a supportive community. “I found a place where I belonged and where I fit in,” she shared. “It built so much confidence in me.”

Meghann Mullen has been a Jazzercise instructor for almost 10 years. Her focus is on helping people feel good in their own skin. Photo credit: Linda Atkins.

While cardio dance programs like Jazzercise are known for offering great workouts, instructors like Mullen focus on the benefits that keep students healthy in other ways. “There are mental, social and emotional aspects of it that are just as important as the physical ones,” shared Mullen. “If weight loss is a goal someone has, that will come. But when you can develop a good, healthy relationship with exercise, you’ll stick with it. When you have a community of people you exercise with, you’ll stick with it. My job is to help people see exercise as something they want to do not solely because they want to lose weight. I want to help people to treat themselves with kindness, compassion and respect.”

To do this, Mullen shifts the focus away from comparing bodies to one another. Instead of indulging negative self-talk, she encourages her students to find the ways they’ve grown more confident and comfortable in their own bodies. “I want people to appreciate the body that they’re in and not want to change it,” she said. “I want them to really feel good in their own skin. Women criticize their bodies so much but when I teach, I don’t talk about my body or talk about other people’s bodies. My priority in my classes is feeling good. I’m going to make sure they get a good workout but I want them to feel emotionally well about themselves.”

Bellingham Jazzercisers are part of a supportive community who have fun together while they exercise. Photo credit: Sara Holodnick.

Bellingham Jazzercise is extending their commitment to building positive body image by participating in the Jazzercise GirlForce program. This program offers free classes through the end of 2017 for anyone between the ages of 16 and 21. And just like the studio itself, the GirlForce program is open to everyone regardless of gender.

“We’ve all experienced what it’s like to live with unrealistic beauty standards,” said Mullen. “Especially when you’re a teenager or in your early 20s, your self-esteem is so tied-up in your body image and how you view your own worth. I want to help young people build their body image and their self-esteem so they know that they’re more than how they look. They can be fit and they can be strong and powerful. Being fit doesn’t mean you have to look a certain way.”

Marisol, age 17, is a student at Sehome High School who is taking advantage of the GirlForce program. “Girl Force is just a great idea because you get a whole year trial to see if it really works for you,” she said. “I like that I’ve been able to handle more cardio based activities. I also play in my high school’s orchestra and upper-body strength is a huge must.”

Marisol has been able to get a physical education waiver by participating in Jazzercise and she has found the community at the downtown studio to be supportive and welcoming. “I like how open everybody is here,” she said. “Right off the bat, everyone is really friendly and is willing to talk to you.”

Instructors at Bellingham Jazzercise will give students a great workout while focusing on the many other benefits of physical activity. Photo credit: Linda Atkins.

Jazzercise may seem a little intimidating to some but Mullen wants people to know that it’s quite the opposite. “Almost everyone who comes in tells me they’re not coordinated but that’s almost never the case,” she explained.

There are a number of moves to learn but nobody catches on right away. That’s yet another beautiful aspect of Jazzercise – It doesn’t matter! You can have fun and get a good workout whether you’re moving in the right direction or not. And once you’ve done it a few times, it starts to become second nature.

“You’re learning a new language with your body,” said Mullen. “You just have to let yourself be comfortable with not being good at something right away.” Giving yourself grace and patience is a practice in self-love and the other students in class will be supportive and helpful while you learn the ropes.

Curious to try? Mullen recommends coming to Bellingham Jazzercise (1326 Commercial Street in downtown Bellingham) about 10 minutes before the start of any class. GirlForce participants under the age of 18 will need to be accompanied by a guardian to sign a waiver with them. There’s no special equipment required. Normal workout clothes, cross-trainer shoes and a willingness to try something new are all you’ll need to get down on the dancefloor.

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