There were no fans to cheer on the UCLA Bruins at their season-opening competition this weekend, but you wouldn’t know it watching gymnast Nia Dennis’s fantastic first-place floor routine.
The routine earned the 21-year-old UCLA senior a score of 9.95—basically a perfect 10—clinching the win for UCLA over Arizona State. And, with over 8.5 million views on Twitter, Dennis’s performance has officially gone viral. (If you haven’t seen it, check it out on the UCLA Athletics YouTube channel immediately.)
In addition to being a display of incredible technical skill and flawless execution, Dennis’s routine is being lauded as an exuberant celebration of Black culture—thanks to a powerful soundtrack, some killer dance moves, and the sheer joy radiating from Dennis’s face. As the UCLA Gymnastics Twitter account puts it, “This is what #blackexcellence looks like.”
The dynamic routine, choreographed by Bijoya ‘BJ’ Das, featured samples and instrumentals from an amazing lineup of Black artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Megan Thee Stallion, 2Pac, Soulja Boy, Monica, and Dem Franchize Boyz. And woven into all the flips, twists, and tumbles are a number of dance moves that originated on the West Coast, Essence reports.
Dennis, a sociology major, has caught the attention of at least one of her featured artists—Missy Elliott called the routine “Snappin” plus the fire emoji. Janet Jackson also tweeted out the routine (to which Dennis replied, appropriately, “a literal icon!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH”). Dennis earned praise from Olympian Simone Biles, who wrote on Twitter, “Okay @DennisNia do the damn thing girl 🔥 this was so fun to watch! keep killing it!” And Queer Eye‘s Karamo Brown called Dennis “a star.”
For anyone who’s not already a Dennis diehard, here’s a little more on who this star gymnast is.
1. Dennis’s routine reflects a few different parts of her identity.
Dennis’s routine is a celebration of Black culture and music, as well as a representation of her personal identity. “This routine definitely reflects everything that I am today as a woman,” Dennis said at a post-meet virtual press conference, as Essence reports. “And of course I had to incorporate a lot of parts of my culture.”
The gymnast explained how a couple of elements in the routine represented different aspects of her background. For instance, the stepping sequence Dennis opens with is an homage to her dad and the Black fraternity culture he was involved in. “I wanted to give a tribute to my father,” she explained. “He’s Greek, he was in fraternities, and stepping is really big, so I wanted to incorporate that.”
And the inclusion of Tupac’s anthem “California Love” is a clear nod to her team’s home state. “Of course I had to shout out LA because we out here, UCLA,” Dennis said. (Her current Twitter banner is a photo of the West Coast hip-hop icon.)
2. This isn’t her first routine to go viral—her birthday routine last year did too.
You might remember Dennis from her first routine that made the internet go wild. In February 2020, Dennis nailed a routine set to a Beyoncé medley, including hits like “Crazy in Love.” She performed it at a home meet against Utah—on the day of her 21st birthday!—and earned a 9.975, as ESPN reported. She also won heaps of admiration from some big names, like Steve Harvey and Ellen DeGeneres.
The routine struck Alicia Keys, who tweeted at the time, “Look at this unstoppable power and confidence!! Was just talking about how nothing gives you more power then being yourself! Shine @DennisNia, I’m inspired!!”
Now Vice President Kamala Harris also commended the gymnast. “@DennisNia is ending #BlackHistoryMonth the right way―by showcasing her Black excellence,” Harris wrote on Twitter. “Beyoncé herself would be proud.”
3. Floor isn’t the only event Dennis dominates.
Did we mention that Dennis also won first place on the vault this weekend? Check out that short but sweet victory on YouTube.
Dennis’s UCLA bio says the vault is her favorite apparatus. That’s not to say she struggles in other categories, though—Dennis is an extremely well-rounded gymnast.
At her February 2020 meet, she tied her career high of 9.975 on the beam, according to UCLA. The gymnast scores high on the bars too. In 2019, Nia was first-team All-American on uneven bars, per her UCLA bio. She also earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors on bars in 2019 and vault in 2018. (The Pac-12 Conference is a collegiate athletics competition that includes members from 12 universities across the western United States.)
4. She loves the energy of “rocking out” on the floor.
Dennis’s floor work showcases the fact that she is an amazing dancer. The gymnast often shares footage of herself dancing on social media (like this Instagram of a dance class she took in November 2019 with the track “Routine” by Wale featuring Rick Ross and Meek Mill), and that love of dancing shines in her routines. “I wanted to have a dance party because that’s my personality,” Dennis said at this weekend’s virtual press conference.
Dennis’s passion for dance explains why she works so well with volunteer assistant coach BJ Das—a professional dancer and choreographer who has performed live with Beyoncé, Pink, and Usher. “It’s been really amazing,” Dennis said during an episode of Bruin Banter. “She’s provided a lot of different styles and a lot of different moves that I can work with and different things that I can try, especially moves that I’m not really comfortable with, breaking me out of my comfort zone a little bit, which I think is really cool.”
That zeal for dance is also part of what makes Dennis so fun to watch. “I love the energy; we love a floor party,” Dennis said. “I love when the crowd gets super loud, because then I feel like we can all just rock out and have the biggest dance party in the world.”
5. She recently had shoulder surgery.
Dennis had a long-term shoulder injury corrected in 2020. She had been performing with a shredded labrum (a type of cartilage in the shoulder joint) for five years, per the Los Angeles Times. Dennis shared the news that she “finally fixed her shoulder” with an Instagram post in June 2020, promising to “be back betta than evaaaa” She thanked her mom (featured in the second slide) for being there to support her.
In December, Dennis looked back on her progress since the operation with a pretty badass video she shared on Instagram.
6. Her biggest inspiration is her little sister.
Dennis opened up about her special relationship with her 10-year-old little sister, Maya, during an appearance on The Ellen Show following her big moment last year. “She loves me, adores me, looks up to me,” Dennis said. “And honestly, on my days when I feel like I can’t do it anymore, or I just want to quit even more, she just keeps me going. So I love her.”
7. She’s been a gymnast since 2006.
According to her bio on USA Gymnastics, Dennis started the sport in 2006—meaning she’s been doing gymnastics since age six or seven. She credits her parents Casey and Deetra Dennis, who are often at her meets, for encouraging her to give the sport a try.
“My parents said that when I was young I would always play around on the monkey bars,” she said on the site. “They suggested that I get started in gymnastics.”
Since then she’s racked up the honors, both nationally and internationally. According to her UCLA bio, Nia was a member of the U.S. National Team from 2013 to 2015 before coming to UCLA. She also competed in the Women’s Junior Olympic National Championships in 2017, per her USA Gymnastics bio.
We’re excited to see what Dennis does next. In the meantime, though, Dennis is super active on social media, so you can stay up to date by following her on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat (@n_dennis23). Peep her TikTok for more amazing dance moves—you never know if they’ll show up in one her next floor routines!