Fitness trainer to older residents thrives at S.A. senior centers


SAN ANTONIO — Eleven seniors grooved to finger-snapping tunes in the Walker Ranch Senior Center’s dance studio on Friday as Donna Gordon counted the beats off in her popular hip-hop twerk class.

“One two three!” shouted the fitness trainer. “Low High!”

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In front of a mirrored wall, the group pulled taut straps, shook bobbles, and strutted across the wooden floor.

“You’re all doing a great job!” said Gordon. “I’m proud of you!”

During the 45-minute session, they followed Gordon’s moves to high-energy songs like Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.”

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The cardio session at the center at 835 W. Rhapsody drew curious looks from several people at the center who stopped to watch. A passer-by gave the student Annette Garza a tip: dancing is about moving your butt.

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“I shake it!” replied Garza, 64.

Donna Gordon, right, speaks to students Friday after class at the Walker Ranch Senior Center.

Donna Gordon, right, speaks to students Friday after class at the Walker Ranch Senior Center.

Josie Norris, San Antonio Express-News / Staff Photographer

Her instructor said that twerking is a fun way to work her abs, core, and lower body. Above all, it’s a way to get the blood and hearts pumping of a population she’s eager to help.

Vincent T. Davis, a 22-year Air Force veteran, found a second career in journalism and found his calling. Observing and listening throughout San Antonio, he finds fascinating stories about everyday people. Every Monday morning he shares his stories with Express-News subscribers.


“There is something special about seniors,” said Gordon, 60. “They want to be with you for the right reasons. You become a friend, like family.”

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In 1992, promoting fitness and health became her journey.

Gordon, a former award-winning bodybuilder, began inspiring older San Antonians to take on challenges they thought they couldn’t handle. She offers personal training and fitness classes as part of her Survival of the Fittest health and wellness programs. Gordon said she’s had a variety of roles, such as corporate fitness specialist for Rackspace and health and wellness instructor at the YMCA.

She credits her stay-fit campaign to her mother, whose classes Gordon shares at senior centers and nine memory care facilities. Gordon also founded the nonprofit I Care Memory Organization in honor of her mother, Annie Ruth Statham, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Gordon’s relationship with her mother continued throughout her life. They attended the University of the Incarnate Word at the same time, both graduating in 1983. Gordon said the structure of her life enabled her to earn a bachelor’s degree in education at age 20 and a master’s degree in adult education with honors a year later.

Students train in the hip-hop twerking class led by Donna Gordon (not pictured) at the Walker Ranch Senior Center in San Antonio on Friday.  Gordon credits her mother with teaching her discipline, which led her to graduate with honors from the University of Incarnate Word, become a trophy-winning bodybuilder, and serve as a fitness instructor for elderly residents at memory care and senior citizen centers.

Students train in the hip-hop twerking class led by Donna Gordon (not pictured) at the Walker Ranch Senior Center in San Antonio on Friday. Gordon credits her mother with teaching her discipline, which led her to graduate with honors from the University of Incarnate Word, become a trophy-winning bodybuilder, and serve as a fitness instructor for elderly residents at memory care and senior citizen centers.

Josie Norris, San Antonio Express-News / Staff Photographer

Statham’s resume included singing the national anthem at Spurs games and performing the “Our Father” during Pope Paul John II’s visit to San Antonio in 1987.

Her signature role was abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a character she portrayed in the Battle of Flowers Parade for more than 20 years. Gordon said her mother continued to perform to the delight of staff and residents at her memorial care center.

“She was a praying woman and a leader,” Gordon said, “just like Harriett led people to freedom.”

Gordon’s mother died on November 30, 2018. She was 84 years old.

Gordon became interested in staying fit after a difficult pregnancy. She weighed 255 pounds and developed gestational diabetes. A trainer challenged her to enter a bodybuilding competition. She attended former Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman’s gym in Dallas and met bodybuilder Brian Dobson, who took her to a higher level of physical fitness.

She had to lift and throw weights. She was pushing an idling truck up a hill to build up her hamstrings. In the sweltering summer heat, she wore wool sweatshirts. Gordon competed as a bodybuilder for six years and won several awards including first place at the South Texas Bodybuilding Championship.

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Now she offers this focus to seniors and the memory care community. Once a month, Gordon entertains seniors at memory centers accompanied by the I Care Memory dancers – 12 seniors in colorful, hand-sewn costumes.

Gordon hopes to one day open his own state-of-the-art senior center for veterans and those with disabilities and Alzheimer’s with the help of the nonprofit’s board of directors. The list includes her mother’s friend and Battle of Flowers sponsor Clara Vaughn, Angela Soriano and Jerome Everett.

Katy Stephens (right) bursts out laughing with fellow student Annette Garza (left) at their hip-hop tattooing class at Walker Ranch Senior Center in San Antonio on Friday.  Gordon credits her mother with teaching her discipline, which led her to graduate with honors from the University of Incarnate Word, become a trophy-winning bodybuilder, and serve as a fitness instructor for elderly residents at memory care and senior citizen centers.

Katy Stephens (right) bursts out laughing with fellow student Annette Garza (left) at their hip-hop tattooing class at Walker Ranch Senior Center in San Antonio on Friday. Gordon credits her mother with teaching her discipline, which led her to graduate with honors from the University of Incarnate Word, become a trophy-winning bodybuilder, and serve as a fitness instructor for elderly residents at memory care and senior citizen centers.

Josie Norris, San Antonio Express-News / Staff Photographer

Michael Garza-Gongora, Creative Director of Media Relations, learned about Gordon’s class from his mother, Vanessa. Both are on the board. He films high definition fitness sessions for a short documentary about Gordon.

“She puts her mother’s face on each of the seniors,” said Garza-Gongora, 33. “I saw canes and walkers outside the door. It really gets them going.”

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After class ended, the seniors surrounded Gordon in farewell. Marvin King Sr., 76, said he lost 7 pounds in four weeks of attending the class.

“I haven’t moved that much in 20 years,” King said.

Garza, a first-time participant, said she was excited to try the class, which works muscles that haven’t been used in a while.

“I’ll keep practicing,” she said. “If I get good enough, I’ll twerk my way.”

On October 6, from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Gordon is hosting on Wiltshire Ave. 1316 a Spirituals and Souls fundraiser for the development of the non-profit organization I Care Memory. Admission is $75 per person. The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos themed event includes a silent auction and an ofrenda where attendees can place a photo of a family member.

Visit icarememory.org for more information. or [email protected]

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