Debra Donaldson is everything you would think a dancer should be. Lithe, athletic, petite and graceful. A half century of dance defined her career, her body and her self-image. That is, until she took the stage for the first time as a physique competitor.
At 62, Donaldson made the decision to step out of her lifelong comfort zone. She wanted to challenge her body in new ways and see – to just see – if she could step away from the dance persona while making a bold statement on aging.
She did something that few women over 60 would contemplate, let carry alone out. She graced the stage in a tiny bikini and flexed her true power as a mature, confident woman and lifelong athlete.
“As a dance teacher, I’ve always talked to my students about believing in themselves and doing what they were meant to do,” Donaldson explains. “It’s about believing in yourself, and it was so rewarding. I had so much fun!”
Dreaming and Believing
Donaldson retired four years ago as artistic director at Dreams in Motion, a non-profit performing and fine arts school in Gananoque, Ontario, Canada that she founded in 2004 out of her love for dance.
A registered nurse by education and native New Yorker, Donaldson worked in Florida as a nurse early in her career before marrying and moving to Canada.
“I always had dance in my soul and wanted to be a dance teacher,” she says. So she began teaching children’s dance lessons in her basement when her three daughters were still toddlers. Her dance clientele grew so quickly that she opened her own studio, which eventually was transformed into Dreams in Motion.
The irony of the name of her beloved school and her newest adventure isn’t lost on Donaldson. “My fitness competition was about taking off the mask. It’s about showing people ‘this is me’ and I’m not hiding behind that any longer,” she says.
Donaldson’s turning point was her 60th birthday. A friend was competing in fitness shows, and she was looking for something totally different than anything she had ever done as a dancer and athlete. “I’m 5 foot 1 and petite. People call me ‘cute’ and ‘little girl’, and that’s always been in my head,” she explains. “I wanted to be seen as sexy and strong. I’m tired of being known as cute.”
So with her characteristic discipline and determination, Donaldson sought out the help of a fitness trainer and coach and signed up for her first competition. That was in June. And on October 28th, she stepped out onto a completely different kind of stage to strut her new physicality, strength and confidence as a competitor.
“Before this, I had no clue what I was doing. I’ve been a dancer all my life,” she says. “Even right up to the competition, I really didn’t know what the physique category meant. I was just having a ball.”
16 Weeks to Stage
In a 16-week timeframe, Donaldson transformed her delicate dancer’s body to a more muscular frame. She exercised the necessary nutritional discipline and practiced posing and choreography daily.
“I like challenges, and this was very different for me because it was very singular,” she explains. “I’m trying to figure out basic weight lifting in the beginning and YouTubing everything. What I relied on was my discipline. I knew exactly what I had to do, what to eat and when to eat it. The tracks were laid out and I ran on them.”
Along the way, she consumed a lot of clean, nutritious foods to fuel her muscles and leaned out by 14 pounds. “I didn’t really diet; I just followed the plan and my body followed along,” she says. “It felt good the whole time, and I really enjoyed it.”
Perhaps the most uncomfortable part of the process is getting used to the idea of taking the stage in a teeny, tiny, glittery bikini. “When I was first fitted for the bikini, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?’” she laughs. “I’ve never worn a bikini on stage as a dancer, and I would never let my dancers even bare their bellies on stage. I was in for a shock.”
Key to physique competitions is a freestyle performance segment, and as you might imagine, Donaldson took to that like a duck in water. Her dance and choreography skills kicked in as she moved about the stage as a delicate yet powerful butterfly, pausing briefly to flex her muscles for the judges. Her performance landed her a first place in the novice category and second place in the master’s division.
Reflecting back on the experience, Donaldson is thoughtful and measured in her words. “There were a whole lot of reasons I did this. I needed to feel good about me and my body and knowing I can do this at 62,” she says.
“I want to age healthy, and it’s so very important that we take care of our bodies.” Donaldson knows. She lost a brother to a heart attack at age 49. “I don’t want to get to my mother’s age – 84 – and not be able to walk.”
Donaldson’s lifetime of dance training has put strains and stresses on her body, and even though she thought she was approaching nutrition in a healthy way, she learned a lot along the way. “Putting even better nutrition into my body has been huge for me. I’m constantly learning something new and growing, and that’s key,” she says.
At this juncture, she’s not certain she’ll do another physique competition. It was something she needed to prove to herself she could do.
Today, Donaldson focuses on giving back to her community, volunteering, and serving as a Lion’s Club member. She has also served as a volunteer for the community food bank and the Humane Society. She is also completing her certification as a personal trainer and nutrition coach.
“I’m busier than ever,” she exclaims. “There’s no holding me back. I’m doing more and helping more people now than I ever have.”
Her healthy aging advice for others? “Keep moving. Exercise. And always be learning and growing.”
At 62 years young, Donaldson knows a think or two about that. As one of her favorite social media hashtags conveys, #dancethroughthegameoflife. Donaldson certainly is setting the example.