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How One Woman Stumbled Into Her Encore Career

A former economics professor now teaches Zumba to older adults

By Paul Solman | December 5, 2013
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Paul Solman is the business and economics correspondent for PBS NewsHour. He has taught at Harvard Business School, Yale University and Brandeis University and his reporting has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards.

(This article previously appeared on PBS NewsHour.com.)

Mary Huff Stevenson, professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is an exceptionally astute old friend with whom I used to meet regularly in the 1980s and '90s to discuss economics.

She helped me understand that economic inequality, however unfair and undesirable, might be a sustainable condition in America: the better-off transacting largely with one another and leaving a large swath of Americans out of the picture. She pointed out that more education might not change the situation — it may simply mean that everyone moved ahead a step, not that anyone moved ahead in line. She schooled me on research she had done during a fellowship year on the impetus for the mass library movement in 19th century America: to distract and pacify the restive working classes.

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Stevenson has long been a champion of the less fortunate — teaching them, teaching about them. During her decades at UMass, she co-authored two books with noted Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone: The Boston Renaissance: Race, Space and Economic Change in an American Metropolis, (Russell Sage, 2000) and The Urban Experience: Economics, Society, and Public Policy (Oxford, 2008) with additional co-author Russell Williams.

She also starred with Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow and founding father Benjamin Franklin in a video I presented some years ago to explain the concept of "opportunity cost." In an earlier version, which I can't find online, she played the role of my psychotherapist.

Professor Stevenson, with whom I graduated Brandeis University in 1966, no longer teaches economics, but something called Zumba Gold ®. It is her  encore career.

And so, with our most ambitious online effort to date — "New Adventures for Older Workers" — debuting recently, this seemed the right time to offer Stevenson's account of her transition.

Mary Huff Stevenson: I was an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston for 40 years, and I'm now in my encore career as a fitness instructor focusing on older adults and those with physical limitations. It's an unlikely path for someone whose childhood nickname was Supey, short for Superklutz.

Growing up, I was never athletic, never a cheerleader, never had dance lessons. The only evidence that I enjoyed moving around at all was that when I got home from school I'd turn on the TV to watch American Bandstand and I'd try to imitate all the new dance moves.

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Around the time I turned 50, I realized that although I was fortunate to be in good health, I should not take this for granted. I joined a gym where I walked on a treadmill and worked out with machines and free weights. However, I injured my shoulder while lifting a suitcase and had to stop the strength training while I was getting physical therapy. Bored with just the treadmill, I wandered into an aerobics class. It was a class in the Nia Technique ® and I was captivated by it.

Nia is an eclectic form of exercise that borrows from martial arts such as tai chi, tae kwon do and aikido; healing arts, including yoga, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method; both modern and jazz dance and the free-spirited moves that Isadora Duncan might have done.

Nia is done "your body's way," so when all the other shoulders in the class were moving, mine wasn't and that was perfectly fine. The shoulder healed, but I never went back to the free weights. Through Nia, I'd reclaimed that energetic teenage girl who enjoyed twirling around her living room.

I knew from my years of teaching economics that a good way to really understand something is to teach it to someone else. That was my motivation for doing the intensive training required of all Nia instructors.

When I began to envision my students, I realized that I would have the greatest impact on other older adults. From there, it became a question of how best to reach them. Knowing that Nia might not appeal to everyone, I got further training to teach Zumba Gold ® (a version of the Latin rhythm exercise class modified for older active adults) and Ageless Grace ® (a seated exercise format that uses 21 unique tools to promote lifelong movement with comfort and ease).

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I currently teach classes at senior centers and at a gym for people over 50. I think I am helping older adults to remain physically and mentally agile. As a senior, I know I'm benefiting.

Although this transition can be read as a story of dramatic change, it is also a story of continuity: I've been teaching my entire adult life — the subject matter is just different.
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