Over the past week, UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis has gone viral with a video of her floor routine in a meet against Arizona State University. While her tumbling passes were near-perfect (she scored 9.950 from the judges), it seems fair to say that her dancing was what largely caught the attention of the internet—and Missy Elliott, Michelle Obama and Kerry Washington.
This isn't the first time that footage of Dennis has gone viral. Last year, the same thing happened with a routine to Beyoncé.
Dennis has never taken intensive dance training (although she had some ballet classes when she was around 3, "I cried at every lesson," she says). But she often dances during her free time, practicing things like footwork, isolations and freestyling. "Working on parts of my body that I don't typically move," she explains.
UCLA gymnastics' choreographer BJ Das, a commercial dancer and choreographer in L.A. who grew up as a competitive gymnast herself, now gives the team a regular dance lesson called "Studio Mondays." Each week, she teaches a jazz or hip-hop combo, or something across the floor. "It's a completely different environment than gymnastics," says Dennis. "The energy is just so hype. I love it."
Das says Dennis is an eager student: "Even during quarantine, she would reach out to me asking, 'Who should I watch? Where can I take class? Let's dance together on Zoom.' "
Dennis' latest viral floor routine incorporated stepping and iconic moves like the Soulja Boy and the woah to a mix of music from Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Soulja Boy, Tupac Shakur and Megan Thee Stallion. "I wanted to shine a light on Black culture," says Dennis. Media outlets have hailed her celebration of Black excellence.
Some of the choreography hits close to home: Her dad was in a fraternity in college, where he'd learned stepping. "We ended up FaceTiming with him and he sent us some tutorials from the fraternity dances he did back in the day," says Das. "We said we have to include an 8-count of this!"
Don Liebig/UCLA Photography, Courtesy UCLA Athletics
Dance is typically somewhat of an afterthought in gymnastics, an in-between moment to rest between required elements like leaps and tumbling passes. However, college gymnasts tend to have more time for it than international or Olympic competitors who have to hit a certain amount of difficulty, and UCLA in particular is known for its strong dancing.
Gymnasts are judged on execution, composition, difficulty and artistry. "My role is to bring out the artistry in these athletes," says Das. Although she adds that judges rarely make deductions in the artistry category in college, great dancing—like Dennis'—can be the thing that makes for a winning routine.
Dennis admits that her mindset completely shifts between the two forms when she's competing. "I have fun in the dance, then it's a mental switch focusing on all the little cues I need to think of when I'm tumbling," she says. "Getting into the dancing keeps me in the moment, so I'm not just thinking, Don't mess up!"
Now a senior, Dennis is keeping dance in mind as a possibility post-graduation. "I would love to be anybody's backup dancer," she says, with a laugh.
That energy she gives when she's dancing during a floor routine? It's 100-percent real, she says. "I'm feeling it, especially when my teammates are doing it too on the sidelines," she says. "It's just like a big party."