At 81, Suanne Ferguson just discovered a new variation in her dance world


By Nancy Wilstach
Photos by Keith McCoy

Suanne Ferguson’s feet have danced across stages and studio classrooms, in churches and in concert halls; she has been dancing since she was a toddler.

Now, at 81, her fingers are doing the dancing—across her computer keyboard. Believed to be the nation’s oldest certified Zumba teacher, Ferguson said that she has more to teach than the feet.

“I want to teach people to take charge of their aging,” Ferguson said, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “Oh, I won’t stop dancing—I told my dance students I will be beside them in the classroom.”

Her latest quest started when she fell on that pallet corner in Aldi’s and broke her shoulder. For many octogenarians, such an injury would have been a fast ticket to a bed in an assisted living center. Not so for Ferguson; while recovering, she just fell into a career change.

She had been teaching at a frenzied pace, up at dawn, on the road by 6:30, preaching the gospel of movement throughout the Birmingham area, logging thousands and thousands of miles since 2010. One of her favorite classes was Zumba Gold at the Alabaster Senior Center. Zumba Gold is a low-impact version of the popular Latin dance routine that is designed to keep older bones and joints happy.

Then came her injury May 8, and Ferguson began examining alternatives that are less frenetic but still focused on her belief in the therapeutic effects of dance on the human brain.

“There is new science pointing people to dance to stay healthy—evidence is emerging that the movement of dance has a positive effect on the aging process in the brain,” she said. There is a body of work that suggests dance can mitigate the effects of dementia.

This quick, pert, engaging woman is Exhibit A for healthy aging and probably would make a good scientific study for any grad student who thinks he or she could maintain the pace.

Ferguson, a Buckeye by birth and a graduate of Western Reserve University in Cleveland, taught ballet for 65 years. She married, had a daughter and a son, was widowed; she moved to the Birmingham area in 1974. She helped found two ballet academies. Then, in 1996, Ferguson went back to school for a master’s degree in Universe of Creation Spirituality from Naropa University.

Naropa’s intriguing web site describes this master’s program as helping its students develop “a meaningful life in the 21st century–meaningful for oneself, meaningful for others, for the planet, and beyond.” That pretty well describes Ferguson’s approach.

After her injury, she said, “at first, I felt overwhelmingly sad, but after I thought it through and the more I move into it, the more excited I am. I know I am going to have to write every day. And I am preparing a proposal to send to publishers.”

Her book, tentatively titled “Take Charge of Your Aging Now: Ten Timely Tips to Manage the Challenge,” is aimed at those in roughly her children’s age group—those in their late 40s to early 60s who see old age on the horizon and keep trying to look the other way. Ferguson wants to encourage them to embrace the advancing years by keeping their bodies alert through movement.

Those who would like to know more about Ferguson and her philosophy of “Keep Moving!” can check out her web site: