Gymnastics routines don’t have official titles.
But UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis likes to name hers anyway.
Her latest creation is called “The Culture,” a tribute to the Black artists and musicians whose music she samples in the routine. “The whole thing, literally everything, is Black culture,” she says. Dennis selected snippets of songs from Missy Elliot, Kendrick Lamar and Tupac, stringing them into an almost two-minute tribute to “Black Excellence.”
The routine immediately went viral.
“I wanted it to be a celebration of everything [Black people] can do, everything we can overcome,” said Dennis, a 21-year-old college senior. “Amid all the adversity and oppression we’ve been through, here we are.”
In a sport dominated by White women, Dennis has gained a reputation for elevating the Black experience. Last year, it was a Beyoncé-inspired routine that captivated the Internet and landed her on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
While Dennis aspires to be an Olympic gymnast, she says, she won’t compromise on her commitment to “push boundaries.” Her routines will always reflect who she is, she says — the daily joys and struggles of being a Black woman in America.
I spoke to Dennis about her latest routine and her plans for the future.
She has many.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What inspired this routine?
A: The Black Lives Matter protests were pretty much the foundation. This summer, I had shoulder surgery so I wasn’t going out. I was trying to heal, trying to prepare for the season. But I was definitely out there in spirit.
Q: How did you channel Black Lives Matter into gymnastics?
A: The subject of Black Likes Matter is so heavy. It is difficult for people to talk about — and sometimes you have to meet people where they’re at, with a celebration. Every single song is a major Black artist, musician, from different time periods. They had a huge impact on Black culture, which has also had a huge impact on me. So I’m just literally celebrating what they’ve done and having the time of my life.
Q: What is it like to be a Black gymnast in a very White sport?
A: When I lived in Ohio, it was me and maybe two or three other Black gymnasts out of the whole gym. I was surrounded by White gymnasts all the time, and a lot of the things we do are not the same. Hair was always a thing. People would ask, “Can I touch your hair? How does it stand up like that?” I had to deal with things like that my entire life.
Q: What else have you had to deal with as a Black gymnast?
A: Literally, body image. Body image is already huge in gymnastics — looking fit, looking lean, looking skinny. And I was always considered fat because I’m a more powerful, explosive gymnast. There is a certain style, a certain look, that people are looking for and I never fit the look. I got told my lines weren’t pretty.
Q: Your lines “weren’t pretty”? What does that mean?
A: So for example, on bars, you do a handstand and you’re in a perfect line. Your ribs are tucked in, you’re squeezed super tight, toes are pointed, everything down to a T. Clean lines. People were always telling me my lines were not clean because my legs were strong.
It’s been a struggle trying to find myself as a Black woman in America, for real. I was constantly told I wasn’t good enough, and I’d be trying to change to fit into the ideal image of what everybody else wanted me to be. Then I came to UCLA, a place where I can celebrate Black Excellence, celebrate me. I can’t imagine any other place where I could be me, the way I am here.
Q: You’ve used the term Black Excellence to describe this routine. What does that term mean to you?
A: It’s a highlight and a celebration literally of Black greatness, things that have had an impact on Black culture and the Black community. Every musician in my floor routine has had an impact, whether it was dance, whether it was activism, whether it was stepping, whether it was Greek things. That was just great. That was just excellent.
Q: What comes next for you? Are the Olympics in your future?
A: I tried out for the Olympics in 2016, and tore my Achilles just three months before. I was devastated. I really wanted to quit gymnastics. That being said, my Olympic dreams have not died. I have been training some elite routines to kind of prepare for the Olympics this year, just in case.
Q: Are Olympic gymnastics different from the routines that you do?
A: [Olympic gymnastics] have been so cookie-cutter, very ballet, very classical. I’m really pushing boundaries by doing things that are modern, new, urban. In college, you have the opportunity to show your personality through your dance and through your music.
There’s already been a push of boundaries with Simone [Biles]. She uses music that changes a lot. It’s really upbeat, high tempo. That’s already a huge push of boundaries, and I just want to push it even further. I want to bring that to the even bigger stage.
Q: Why do you think Olympic gymnastics are so cookie cutter? Obviously people really respond to the kind of routines that you do.
A: That’s just the culture of elite gymnastics. That’s always how it’s been. When I was doing elite gymnastics back in the day, it was like, “Don’t smile, don’t laugh, don’t talk.” It’s so intense, so strict. When we’re out there and it looks like we’re robots, it’s literally just because there’s no emotion behind it. There’s no feeling.
Q: Do you think Olympic gymnastics could change?
A: I hope so. I want it to. I want it to be an enjoyable place for literally every gymnast.
I want to inspire young Black gymnasts because it’s really rare to see us doing this sport. I want to let them all know: You can do anything you set your mind to. No matter what people tell you, go after it, and get it.
Q: After gymnastics, what do you want to do?
A: I love dancing. In my free time, I’m always dancing. Honestly, in the middle of practice, I’m dancing.
Q: In the middle of your routine, you’re dancing.
A: Exactly. One day I want to be somebody’s backup dancer — maybe for Janet Jackson or Missy Elliott. I’ve felt like gymnastics has always defined me. But over the years I’ve learned that there are so many things I can contribute to this world.
I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m getting there.