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Body positive: Towson Y Zumba instructor comes to terms with terminal cancer diagnosis

Towson Y instructors Kirsten Ledford, left, and Sonja Burns take a photo together to honor Burns' life after a terminal lung cancer diagnosis.
Towson Y instructors Kirsten Ledford, left, and Sonja Burns take a photo together to honor Burns' life after a terminal lung cancer diagnosis. (Kirsten Ledford)

Sonja Burns was the picture of health, with her purple hair and exuberant outlook on life a daily fixture at the Y in Towson, where she served as a Zumba instructor.

Her life changed suddenly last month, and she let others know the shocking news in a Facebook post on Aug.26.

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“I have stage 4 lung cancer,” Burns wrote. “No guarantees, but they are guessing just two weeks left. I went home Monday night — with pain meds, sedatives. I have decided against chemo, as the trade off sucks (unpleasant treatment to gain a week or two on Earth? I’ll pass). THANK YOU for your love and support over the years. I AM allowed visitors. :-). Not to be morbid, but sooner is better.

“I have read all of of your messages, but am having probs responding. Send your phone number, and I will give you a call. Much love! Never forget, you are so much more than just a body!”

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Leading up to her diagnosis on Aug. 12, Burns felt a general weakness and shortness of breath. She was rushed to the hospital in early August.

After her announcement, in an outpouring of support from family, friends and many trainees who were touched by her over the course of their own lives, posts displaying the hashtag #SonjaBurnsismorethanbodychallenge flooded her Facebook page.

One of her biggest supporters is Kirsten Ledford, who began teaching Zumba at the Y in 2012. Ledford describes Burns, 55, as being “real” and a person who won’t shy away from “calling out B.S.”

The Zumba instructor is the mastermind behind one last outdoor Zumba class, which was held Monday, Aug. 31 outside Burns’ Towson apartment.

“She was having visiting hours, which I thought was wonderful,” Ledford said. “That makes it easy for people to visit. Immediately, I thought that we could not go out without dancing because that’s what Sonja was all about. Sonja was my Acquapole [a pool fitness device] partner, a Zumba sister. She was the one that had me step out way beyond; the enthusiasm was so contagious.”

Ledford knew from experience that she couldn’t wait on seeing a terminal patient. Her friend’s father had been in hospice care, but she didn’t make it in time to see him before he died because a pipe had burst in her home. She decided that would never happen again.

“When people tell you how much time they have left, we need to believe it,” she said. “If they’re given more, it’s a blessing, but every second we have we have to use.”

Ledford messaged a number of friends on Facebook to schedule the outdoor event and expected about a half-dozen people, but many more showed up. At the behest of Burns, the event was socially distanced and everyone wore masks due to COVID-19. Better yet, Burns ran the class with the assistance of her friends and danced alongside them.

In its “Best of Baltimore” feature, Baltimore Magazine on Wednesday named Burns Best Group Fitness Instructor.

The irony is that Burns never set out to become a fitness instructor. She was always terrified to exercise in front of people, especially for fear of being body shamed. Burns began working out at the Y in Towson when she moved from nearby Parkville, starting with a walk on the treadmill and then a walk home.

“What I used to think of is your typical Towson housewife, nothing to really offer but my appearance, which I was not happy with,” Burns said. “I joined primarily to lose weight and I definitely bought into the ’Lose weight and everything in your life will get better [mantra]. You’ll be happy and have friends, you’ll be confident.’ I really bought into that sort of thing — the before and after pictures, the whole bit.”

She would soon lose a good deal of weight and started attending different exercise classes in September 2010. She took up Zumba after speaking with one of the personal trainers. After trying it a few times, she fell in love with the exercise program that was created by Colombian dancer and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Pérez in the 1990s.

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Burns decided to go to instructor training down the street from the Y, although she had no intention of actually teaching. She signed up believing “it would be a fun way to spend the day.”

Four days after training as an instructor, her then-Zumba teacher announced she would be moving out of state, and the Y then said the class would be canceled.

Just one month after having completed her training, Burns volunteered to take over the class until a more experienced instructor could be found. Except a new instructor didn’t come, and Burns took over the class full time.

Burns eventually brought the class her own before and after photos to show off how her weight loss journey looked. While she was extremely proud of the pictures, a new student commented, “Your before picture, that’s what I look like now.” After seeing the pain in the student’s eyes, Burns decided to make it a goal to accept all body types.

“I felt terrible,” Burns said. “I wondered how much damage to people that live with those before and after pictures. That’s something that I’ve yet to forgive myself for.”

The encounter also made her realize for the first time what “true fitness” is. She said it has nothing to with looks and that appearances don’t reflect the type of person someone is.

Burns began to educate herself and her students on nonjudgmental fitness. Her students loved her outlook on body positivity, allowing them to relax and leave their outside worries at the door. It was a success, and she discovered that “if you make people feel good, generally they come back.”

Burns plans to spend most of the time she has left in bed with her her husband, Barry, and cat, Ozzy. She also has one last goal: to live long enough to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“I think that most of us when we exit this life, we want to know that we’ve left a little something behind and that we’ve made an impact,” Burns said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to think that my time on this earth was for naught, that I hadn’t given back to my community. I wanted to go out feeling that I had done something good.”

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