photo credit: Sandra Unorji

Sandra Chiamaka Unorji is a scientific researcher in a bio-pharmaceutical company in the United State, where she works with a team in creating mouse models needed for drug screening.

Hi Sandra, thanks for granting this interview. Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Thanks for this opportunity to tell my story, Helen. well, I am from Imo state Nigeria, but grew up in Lagos state. I earned my bachelors in Agricultural Economics and then completed my Masters in Biotechnology. my hobbies include – dancing and talking to people.

Dancing – yes let’s talk about dancing, when did you develop the love to dance?   (laughing), my first introduction to dance, was when I was five years old. Luckily for me, my primary school was big on dance, it was actually part of our schedules, you either belonged to the band or dance team.

I started out with learning how to do the ballet dance in primary school. My ballet teacher spent extra time teaching other kids and me because she thought we had the potential to dance. Two years after that we were invited to the Muson center in Lagos, Nigeria, to perform for some international guest and that was where I had my major break. I became the popular star in school.

photo credit: Sandra Unorji

We danced ballet to different kinds of sounds such as piano sounds, musicals, and people liked it and we started getting loads of invites to come perform. After primary school, I went to a boarding school, where I joined the ballet team in my church because I already had the passion and the skill and I was opportune to continue from where I stopped, and even teach others.

When I got into the University I also joined the dance group in my church where I taught and danced. I started teaching dance expression because a lot of people were not exposed to ballet in particular; like contemporary dances. it wasn’t easy combining school work and dance but I continued due to my passion, there were times when my grades got affected sometimes but i tried to find the balance and it turned out successful.

I attended maltina dance all once. (‘maltina dance all’ is a television programme where different people involved in a dancing competition in Nigeria). I deprived myself of food all day because I was nervous and unfortunately for me, I fainted at the last stage of the competition. And to be honest, I never got over that and that was the reason I never went for any other competitions.

photo credit: Sandra Unorji

After University, while I was waiting to go for the National Youth Service (NYSC), Some of my friends told me about the Calabar carnival (Calabar carnival is held every December in Uyo state, Nigeria, where different dance and traditional attires were showcased). I was told that Kaffy was auditioning (Kaffy is the queen of dance in Nigeria, who won the Guinness book record of dancing for three days non stop), I wasn’t even prepared, I just went there, did my performance and ‘Kaffy was like, ”wow I love her energy. I want her on the team”.

Boom!, that was how I went to Calabar without telling anyone, in fact, I lied to my parents that I had to take care of some things in school so that I could leave home for the carnival in Calabar which was where I was to perform with Kaffy. It was just me and a girl on the hip hop team, I had to wear face cap throughout to avoid anyone recognizing me on television. I danced my feet off, made my money and went back home feeling very proud of my self. I started getting invitations for music video shoots, was dancing and making some cash. I went for service and after that, I was invited to do a stage performance for Omawumi (she is a Well known Nigerian musician and the second-runner up of West African Idol).

I also went for a couple of other shows, people don’t really know this about me but I also taught ballet classes to kids from 3 – 7 years old, it was part of the hustle. The beautiful thing about it was that it wasn’t really about the money but the joy of accomplishment I felt about being a dancer. To be honest, it wasn’t paying the bills but gave a great sense of satisfaction at that point in my life.

I met a lady during my service year, she asked if I could be her personal trainer, that she loves to dance but she needs someone to always motivate her. She also said she wanted to lose weight because she felt her husband was cheating on her. It actually got to me, and I agreed to help her lose weight. That was when I understood the importance of dance in terms of – weight loss, body toning and happiness. She was really grateful to me and even told her friends about me.

photo credit: sandra Unorji

When I was moving back to Lagos after service, she pleaded with me to stay back and start a dance fitness business, but who knew about ‘dance fitness’. I felt it will be a waste of my time and my degree will go to waste, so I left and after some months without being able to get a job, I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life by not yielding to the lady’s advice and by then I had lost her contact.

A friend of mine told about Zumba. Zumba had just gotten into Lagos and I was introduced to a Zumba trainer. She was looking for someone to assist her, so I started learning the techniques. I observed that the class drew people from different works of life, especially the wealthy working class individuals and the buisness showed a lot of potential of being profitable. This actually blew my mind but I still wanted to work in the corporate world.

I went ahead to get a job with Swift, an internet service providing firm. i could not combine that with the Zumba class so I had to quit working with the lady. After 2 years down the line, i moved to the US.

When I got to the US, I started hearing people talk about Zumba and how it was important for me to get a license to enable me to teach Zumba here and ‘I was wow, I left Nigeria, where it would have been easy for me to teach Zumba and came here and yet nothing’.

Sandra Unorji

I decided to go for Zumba training, got my certificate and started teaching Zumba to friends for like two dollars and they liked it. Then I moved on to host my own class, I get like three persons and the maximum have been six persons. I’m not there yet; I’m still struggling with the business but one thing I am pretty sure of is the realization that dance is what brings me satisfaction. Even when I get that small number in my class, I go past that and keep moving because the thing that matters the most is the joy from seeing clients have fun while they danc.

Have there been any regrets? There have been no regrets, as a matter of fact, i wish i started early, like i wish i started to build my client base from Nigeria, but so far its been an interesting journey.

What are your future plans? combining a professional career and dance is not an easy task but i hope to have a great balance between these two fields. In terms of Zumba, my future plan is to reach out to so many people, make fitness affordable and available especially to women with busy lives.

If you get an opportunity to choose between your career and your dance passion, which will it be and why? wow, that’s really deep oh! If I choose dance; I feel like I won’t be maximizing my potentials because I have a lot of talents and I guess that’s the problem with being ”multipontentialite”. I really can’t choose though but I will go with dance. However, I will like to have a balance between my professional career and dance, which is why I am trying to bring my dance fitness to a good level.

photo credit: Sandra Unorji

What will be your advice to the younger ones, especially those pursuing passion and quitting academic? To be honest I won’t advise anyone to drop academic for passion. It’s good to follow your passion, but what’s tour plan B, you don’t know what the world will throw at you. So I’d advise you to learn how to balance the two. Having academic and passion combined together will re-enforce each other and you can always fall back on one at the long run.

Photo credit: Sandra Unorji

If i didn’t pursue my academics and went into dance full time, imagine at a time when dance wasn’t paying the bills, I would have regretted it so badly and there would have been lots of; ”if I had known”, so many uncertainties. It’s good you have options, have your degree and enhance your passion. Academic is not just about book, it teaches you to be eloquent and relate with people.

I remember a time I had a science conference to attend and one of the organizers, said he was looking for what the participants could do during break time. I sized the opportunity to teach Zumba and a few African steps in between as an ice breaker, and I didn’t have to pay to attend the conference and I got paid for teaching Zumba. Academics isn’t just about just having the certificate but it can help you build your passion on the long run. My advice for the younger ones is to create a balance. Never drop academics for passion. Down the line, one will always help you. I have heard the testimonies of those who worked in a corporate company before opening a fitness business and most of their clients are from the office where they worked.

within the academic field build as much connection, network and knowledge as you can, it may not be related to your passion but it could lead you to professional events and conferences where you can perform. The beautiful thing is the corporate world is trying new ways to make their workers relax and boom! that’s where you come in.