West African dance is a phenomenal workout for the body that leaves you feeling like you can accomplish anything. Cassandra Nuamah, aka “Coach Cass,” lost 50 pounds and transformed her life through African dance. Coach Cass teaches Kukuwa African dance and weight training. This is a fitness program created by her mother Kukuwa, aka “Madame Ageless,” (Kukuwa is 62 years old and gives JLo a run for the money) over 20 years ago.
The workouts are spectacular, and the online program went viral during the pandemic. Kukuwa and Coach Cass don’t just bark out dance moves. Each class is a journey through the African continent as they share the country, music, and intention of the dances during the workouts.
Coach Cass took a few minutes out of her busy schedule from Ghana to speak to BGN about how West African Dance, weight training, and connection to African culture combine to not only create physical fitness, but to build resilience, stamina, and community.
I’d love to hear about your fitness journey and why you started teaching African dance.
My mother has danced ever since I was small. She literally broke her water and went into labor with me while teaching a class. I’ve always seen her doing this. She put my sister and me in ballet, tap, and jazz, but the African dance came out in all the other dance forms. I would be doing tap, and I wanted to shake myself as I did in African dance.
African dance is my culture and our heritage. I tended to gravitate towards that the most. Mom had an African dance troupe that we were a part of, and we always went to rehearsal. I played basketball, did gymnastics, ran track, played field hockey and soccer, and was on the swim team. I used to be a lifeguard. You name it, I did it, but I did those sports 50 pounds bigger than I am today.
I would just go to practice then to celebrate, I’d specifically eat sweets. I have a serious, serious sweet tooth. I say that in the present tense because it didn’t go away. It’s just been diverted to healthier things. I have a serious sweet tooth. I became pre-diabetic. My sister has lupus and I saw her literally go from two weeks from the grave to being able to live from my mom’s holistic medicine, healing methods, food juicing, dance, and weight training.
It was like magic to me. The doctors gave her a death sentence. I saw her go from paralyzed to walking, from eczema to clear skin, from chemotherapy bald head to full hair. So, I was like, okay, I need to change myself around. I shifted my obsession with sugar to an obsession with being well. Because I had a health scare, I had to replace the sweetness that I was finding in the food.
I could no longer, on a whim, just have Krispy Kreme donuts or a whole bag of cookies or a bag of candy corn in one hour. I made a change, and it was the beginning of my real fitness journey. And I say fitness journey because the food and the fitness have to go hand in hand for me, or it doesn’t work.
What has been your most valuable life lesson for maintaining your health and fitness?
Small changes make big differences. For example, going from juice to water, from fried foods to non-fried foods, from large portions and smaller portions, from processed food to whole foods, from stopping your boomsey when you get tired to moving your boomsey even when you’re tired. Moving my boomsey even when I get tired was actually a game-changer. Stop when you’re actually done and not when you’re tired was metaphorically a lesson and physically a lesson.
Tell me more about the difference between being done and tired?
So you know when you’re tired, and you feel like you want to give up, and you haven’t necessarily finished your task or assignment?
Whether that’s at the gym or in your personal life. When you feel like you want to give up, but you haven’t finished, you have to finish because you made a commitment. My commitment was to my wellness, so I had to transcend the tiredness to fulfill my commitment to my goals.
You only see change when you do something different. My body was like, okay, I see you’re going beyond what we’re used to doing. So you’re gonna get something different than what you’re used to. I hated push-ups. I hated most strength training things. But I love African dance. So, there has to be a way to incorporate moving my boomsey and dancing into the strength training to make it bearable and fun which is what Kukuwa Fitness is all about. Once I made the commitment, I was motivated to accomplish my goal.
I have to look at it in the same way I look at brushing my teeth and the same way I look at taking a shower, a commitment I have to hygiene. I have to make the same commitment to wellness. Small changes make a big difference with food by pushing through even when I was tired and finishing what I came to do. I realized I couldn’t wait to be motivated.
How does your connection to African culture combined with fitness allow you to build resilience in your life?
My African culture is a constant reminder that those who came before me worked so hard to get me to where I am. So whether I’m working out for my fitness goals or career-wise, everything is in tune with not giving up and doing my best to honor my ancestors’ labor.
When we dance, specifically, the joy that’s there is the gratitude. The joy that’s there is just being thankful. The joy that’s there is being able because, at some point in our lives, we weren’t all able to do what we wanted to do, whether it’s slavery or whatever it was that held us back.
How has being connected to your family and your online community impacted you through these challenging times?
Like community connection helps you stay motivated and accountable, especially on days you don’t feel like it. You have a community that’s watching you and depending on you. You have a community that you told your goals to, so they’re holding you accountable. Everyone is there to give an encouraging word or a story to relate to that they’re also going through. The community has been crucial, and the aspect of having other people move dancing around the world with Kukuwa Fitness in all different ways, yet in unison is beautiful.
What right now is bringing you the most joy
When people say that Kukuwa fitness has helped them, it brings me immediate joy. Just to know that what we’re doing is not in vain and that it’s helping is our mission.
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Jeanine is a Writer, Actor, member SAG/AFTRA, AEA, Podcast host, Producer, CEO VisAbleBlackWoman Productions, Certified Health Coach and Conscious Dance facilitator. Jeanine's mission, centering Black women's stories to preserve our legacies.