At the peak of her limbo career in the ‘80s, Earlyn “Kizzy” Ferguson was known for bending her body under a flaming bar balanced on two bottles of Coca-Cola about 18 inches high. At the age of 60, Ferguson is no longer defying gravity but from the flick of the wrist when she pours her coffee to the way she widens her eyes in exaggerated surprise when she recalls the first time she went on tour to Japan – the contrast of the rising sun against the Tokyo skyline was so bright she thought the hotel was on fire – her every move reveals a dancer, a lifelong performer with tight control over her every movement and expression.
Movement is the constant in Ferguson’s life. Born on the Caribbean Island of Granada in 1958, she moved with her family at the age of 5 to Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. By the time she was 15, Ferguson was a professional limbo dancer, with her own stage name, Kizzy. A few years later she started touring the world as a member of the Julia Edwards Dance Troupe, one of the most famous limbo dance groups in the Caribbean.
“Limbo tells the story of life,” she says. “it’s a slow descent to death. The last passage under the limbo, the most horizontal one, represents the grave.” The limbo dancing – with three performances a day – took a toll on her knees, and she had to end her dancing career shortly after settling in New York in the early ‘90s, but Ferguson herself is more than ever on the move. In addition to writing and directing her own theater plays, she is producing gospel songs and leads the Goodness and Mercy House of God, a small ministry in Brooklyn.
And that’s just on the side. In her day job, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., she takes care of four elderly women between 65 and 84 with cerebral palsy. Ferguson has been working with cerebral palsy patients for the past 20 years. It was hard on her in the beginning. “I was angry at God,” she says. “Why did He create this suffering? How could this bring Him Glory?”
Over time, though, Ferguson grew to love her job. Many of her patients could neither see nor speak, but they grew to recognize their favorite caregiver by her voice and the sound of her movement, and when she came into their room, they would tell her they knew she was there with a clap or a smile. She lifts her hands in prayer as she recounts this. “Oh Lord, I was thankful,” she says. She came to appreciate just how fortunate she was to have a brain in full control of her body.
Over the years, the constant lifting and moving of bedridden patients at the group home started to take a toll on her back, and she asked for a transfer to a smaller home for more autonomous patients. For the past five years, she has been taking care of Mary, Carroll, Zhu and – based the number of anecdotes she tells about her – her favorite, 65-year-old Leslie. The four high-functioning cerebral palsy patients live together in an apartment on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing. Even though these women still require round-the-clock supervision by two caregivers, they are much more independent and mobile than the patients she previously worked with, and Ferguson loves taking the four out on the move. They take walks, visit local restaurants or try a little gamble at the casino in Far Rockaway. “They love the slot machines,” she says, “but they don’t like losing.”
One of the goals of the outings is teaching patients new skills. Patience is required. One of Ferguson’s former patients spent seven years trying to learn how to tie his shoes, but she will never forget the joy when he finally succeeded. The effort doesn’t always pay off. For the past five years, she has been trying to show Leslie how to hold a credit card and swipe it; one of New York State’s requirements is that she teaches patients how to handle money. She is skeptical that Leslie will ever be able to do without help, but she is not giving up.
Ferguson says she learns a lot from her patients, too. She picks up little phrases that they use and incorporates them in her plays. “A few weeks ago, Leslie was talking about politics, and she called it ‘trickier than the mind,’ and I really liked that I do, too,” she says. She is writing it into her next play, which she plans to bring to the stage in July 2019, with her recently incorporated theater company, “Kizzy’s Playhouse.”
As much as she loves her job, Ferguson hopes to retire in five years. When asked about her ambitions after retirement, her answer doesn’t come as a surprise. She is going to keep writing plays and producing music, but above all, she is planning to travel around the world.
A look at the clock brings her back to the present. She’s running late for work. This afternoon, she is taking the group out for ice cream.