Fitness Fridays: How Cassandra Nuamah Went From Putting Sugar In Her Spaghetti To Transforming Through Kukuwa Dance

September 29, 2017  |  

Talking to Cassandra Nuamah, a wellness coach, personal trainer and one of the great minds behind the popular Kukuwa Dance workout, you can hear the passion in her voice for her work. You can also see the passion in her face when she does the workout, which introduces participants to the latest in music and dances from all over Africa while working up an epic sweat. But if you know her fitness journey, as well as her family’s story, the fervor makes sense.

The 33-year-old, raised by Ghanaian parents and currently residing in NYC, ate poorly growing up. While her mother had always been into health and wellness and even taught fitness classes, Nuamah, who participated in sports, couldn’t pull herself away from sugar. Her belief was that she would run it off later, hoop it off later, swim it off later. She assumed the activities she was involved in would keep her healthy, even if she didn’t eat that way. But when her sister fell ill and was told she would only have two weeks left to live, only to miraculously came out of that healthier and stronger thanks to holistic healing, Nuamah was ready to make a change. And when I say make a change, I mean every aspect of her life changed, including her choice to leave a comfortable advertising job to teach fitness.

We talked to the woman they call Coach Cass about her fitness journey, how she was able to take a small workout all around the world (she’s traveling to Japan and Kuwait next to teach Kukuwa there) and why she’ll never go back to sugar in her spaghetti ever again.

On Being Active From a Young Age

I have always been active — from the womb. My mom actually broke her water in the middle of teaching a class with me, so I was like born into it literally. But yeah, since I can remember I’ve always danced, I’ve played basketball, I ran track, I swam, I was a lifeguard, I’ve done gymnastics. I’ve done every sport you can think of. Field hockey, all these things.

How She Ate Lucky Charms While Her Mom At Healthy

I was always active, but I also was always eating the wrong things. My mom has always been this health maniac. She would shop at the regular grocery store for us and then shop at like a Whole Foods for her. It’s crazy because she was like, “Why did I even do that? I could have been starting my kids off on the holistic path.” But she was buying Lucky Charms and all the things that we wanted, and she would go get the other stuff.

Her Sister’s Illness as the Turning Point

My sister got deathly ill in 2004. She was 17. They told her she was going to die and that she had two weeks to live. I started to write her eulogy, we picked out her casket, it was that serious. My mom was like, “You guys say she’s going to die but I’m going to try and save her the holistic way.” My mom had read so many stories about people who had cancer and other deadly illnesses and they got healed through natural means. So she studied those. She didn’t go to school for it, but she just went to different conferences and read articles and went to different meetings with holistic doctors and said, “You know what? I’m going to try this method on my daughter.” So she took her off of everything. She just had vegetables, juicing and water. My sister was 88 pounds, she had chemotherapy, she has lupus, she was bald, she was paralyzed from the waist down and told that she would never walk again. And within like a month, she stood up from the wheelchair. Within two months she started growing her hair back. She gained like 15, 20 pounds. This is no medication, this is all just holistic ways. She surpassed the two-week mark doctors said she would not make it to and now she’s 32 and she teaches classes and stuff too. It’s because of her that I changed my ways. I was trying to be skinny because I wanted to be cute in my clothes, but she actually helped me change my lifestyle and make it more than just about vanity. After that happened, I went back to school for nutrition and I got my personal training certification because I, myself, transformed. My sister really was the catalyst to this.

The Changes She Made in Her Diet and Exercise

I used to be addicted to everything sugar. I put sugar in my spaghetti. I was pre-diabetic. I ate cupcakes and donuts and cookies and anything sweet. I had it every single day. I didn’t care because I was like, “I’m running track so I’ll run it off. I’m playing basketball so I’ll sweat it off.” I thought you could out exercise your diet, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Diet, especially for me, was 95 percent of my transformation. I mean, I also definitely incorporated fitness levels that I didn’t before. Meaning, whenever I got tired before, I would just stop. I would feel like, “Why does this hurt? I’m not doing it anymore. I should only work out because it’s fun. I’m not going to push myself to where I’m hurting.” But if you want to see something different, you have to do something different. I was like, “Why don’t I have definition in my arms? Why aren’t my legs defined?” It’s because I always did the same things. “Yeah, I always run, I always dance.” But it wasn’t just that. I had to try other things that I didn’t necessarily like, like strength training, like push-ups, pull-ups and those type of things. But the thing that made it better for me was, I didn’t have to do it the boring way. I could infuse dance into it. I could do push-ups to the beat. I could do pull-ups to the beat. I could start from square one. If I can’t do regular push-ups, I could start on my knees. If I can’t do my knees, I can do them on the wall. I would do it to make it fun for me, and then I actually started to like it.

I also started cooking more of my stuff, not putting sugar in everything. Not doing fried stuff. I was Ms. Juice. I would say, “I’m not drinking soda so I’m not bad.” But I would just drink juice with everything. So I started drinking water. After that, different things started changing. I didn’t like any vegetables, I only liked corn and corn didn’t even really count. And then my palette started to change. I like asparagus, Brussels sprouts and broccoli and all of those things I used to say “Ugh gross, I would never eat that in my life” to. I started to make it in a way that was flavorful to me and it tasted good. The biggest thing I learned was that nothing tasted as good as healthy felt. All my little Krispy Kreme donuts, it’s not to say I can never have those things again, but I knew at the rate I was going where I was having them on a consistent basis was causing me to have bumps on my face, pre-period cramps, having the muffin top I didn’t want. These were things I wasn’t happy about. It wasn’t worth the taste of that because being healthy tasted better.

What Spurred Her Decision to Leave Advertising to Teach Fitness

I got low-key in trouble at work because I was taking sabbaticals and doing test-taking and my boss was like, “Ok, so, are you here or where are you? What do you want to do?” I’m wearing spandex workout clothes to work, I didn’t care [laughs]. You eventually come to a crossroads where you’re like, “Yeah, this isn’t going to work.” Also, when my boss said to me that I was lacking a sense of urgency, I was like, you know what? It’s true. I don’t have six months saved up and yeah, I don’t have a big plan and all the things you’re supposed to have, but I do have my passion and I do know how to make money from it and I do have a massive friend and support circle. So we’re going to try and make it work with that.

During lunchtime I would leave to go teach class. After work I would leave to teach class. And those people in the class had no idea I was in advertising. They were like, “You have a 9-to-5 job? I thought this was your 9-to-5 job.” And so they didn’t even know I did that. And when I would introduce myself, I would introduce myself as a fitness coach, or a dance coach or a wellness coach because that’s what I wanted people to know me as. So there were plenty of people who thought I did that anyway, and it made the transition a little bit better because I had already built up a clientele of people who knew me for my classes. Even at my regular 9-to-5 job, some of those people turned into my clients when I left. So it was just a crossroads. And someone said to me, if you don’t start working on your dreams, someone will hire you to work on theirs, and that was just so powerful to me. Whether or not I was ready, I had to go, because if you don’t then you’ll never know.

On Taking Kukuwa Dance Around the World

My mom has been doing this for forever and I ended up joining her and we’ve been able to do it together and take it to the next level. But the vision was, some people don’t know African music. Now they know African music because of Afrobeat and stuff, but before, unless it was drumming, people did not know African music. My mom was like, I want to expose them to that. I want to expose them to our music and our culture in these classes. Even though they’re working out, I still want them to get an education: “Let’s warm up in Kenya and then let’s cool down in Uganda, take it up to a high note in Ghana and then go over to Nigeria.” All these things within class so people feel like, “Wow, I’m traveling without my passport.” So we were like, why don’t we take them with their passport to these actual places they’re dancing to? It only makes sense. We’re obsessed with working out and we’re obsessed with dancing and we’re obsessed with traveling, so why don’t we just do all of those things? There’s nobody that I know of who does all of those things together and focuses on Africa, and does them in Africa. So that turned into, wherever we would travel to in class, we are actually going to take you there. And every country we go to, that’s how we would get our music. We would visit and go to different parties and different villages and learn the local dances, talk to local DJs and then teach the class there. That way, even within Africa, they could experience other countries. So that’s how it went from local to global — from invitations that would come from people who to the class locally from different countries and would say, “Hey, I want you to bring this to my country,” and they would give us an invite.

What Keeps Her Motivated to Not Go Backwards

The feeling. Whenever I want to go back to old Cassandra and binge on like 12 donuts, put sugar in my spaghetti and those things I used to do before, I think about how I used to feel. It’s just not a good feeling to have the worst period cramps ever or to always have breakouts on my face or trying on a million clothes and nothing fits right to me because I don’t like the way I look. That feeling? I don’t like that feeling. So whenever I feel myself going back to that I’m like, “No, I can’t.” And then, social media and my followers and my support and my friends and other people who’ve told me I’ve motivated them really keep me on track. You can’t let them down. My whole support system, they really help me. And when I’m struggling I’ll go on my Instastories and tell them, “So, I’m struggling right now and I just want people to know I’m normal. I’m not the perfect person.” I’m perfectly imperfect. So yeah, I try to be as realistic as possible, too. I’m not going to go to someone’s wedding and be like, “Oh no, sorry, I don’t do cake.” I want a piece of cake [laughs]. I just can’t have the wedding cake in my house every day. So I’m a realist and those type of things and people motivate me.

The Importance of Having Fun and Being Grateful

It is fun! There is is a fair amount of stress and other things that go along with it, but there’s nothing like reminding yourself that you’re doing what you love and you’re helping people. Every day is not amazing. There is so much sh-t that hits the fan daily, but the moment I turn on the music for class or the moment I hit the gym or the moment I do something that brings me joy, I’m like, “Wow, this is really my job, too.” I’m going to Japan to go teach. This is my job. What am I complaining about? I have to bring myself back to reality. Cass, you have so much to complain about but you have way more things to be thankful for. You’re doing what you would do for free, and you’re getting paid to do it. So keep quiet, be humble and sit down like Kendrick says [laughs].”

Be sure to follow Cassandra on Instagram and check out the rest of our Fitness Fridays profiles! 

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