Deconstructing Gymnast Nia Dennis’ Ode to Black Excellence

The Columbus native celebrates Black pride in a viral gymnastics routine.

Grace Dearing
Nia Dennis during her floor exercise against Arizona State on Jan. 23

Early in her career, gymnast Nia Dennis felt discomfort with her skin color. She wished it was different, wished the chalk wouldn’t show up on her legs, she told Yahoo this year. But those insecurities were clearly long gone by January, when the Columbus native, who once trained at Buckeye Gymnastics in Westerville and now competes for UCLA, delivered a showstopping routine that celebrated Black pride. 

At a meet against Arizona State, the senior’s floor exercise was a 90-second whirlwind of cultural references, political symbols, hip-hop and dancing, and it received a near-perfect score of 9.95 out of 10. The online video racked up millions of views. 

“The purpose of my floor routine is to open the eyes of those around me and also shine light on Black excellence,” Dennis said in a subsequent video by UCLA. Here’s how she put it together. 

A Salute to Black Power 

Dennis starts strong, placing her hand on her heart before dropping to one knee with her fist in the air. This stance combines the 1968 podium protests of U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos with that of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Both gestures evoke the power of Black America. UCLA choreographer BJ Das says including them in Dennis’ routine was meant to do the same. 

“We have Black gymnasts on the team, and we want them to feel welcomed and supported in this environment, and to also inspire and uplift other young Black gymnasts,” Dennis said in a February press conference. 

Stepping Out 

About halfway through her routine, Dennis shows off traditional step-dancing moves, inspired by her father, Casey. “He was in fraternities, and stepping is really big, so I wanted to incorporate that,” Dennis said in a January press conference. 

Popularized in the 1900s by Black students in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell University, the art of step is integral to Black culture. Casey was in Phi Beta Sigma at Ohio State—known for its “Sigma Nutcracker” step—so he sent his daughter short videos of step moves, one of which made it into the routine. 

Nia Dennis during her floor exercise against Arizona State on Jan. 23

Tuning In 

A mashup of Black musicians from different eras supports Das’ choreography. First comes Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” and Dennis pays tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman by incorporating the Wakanda salute from Marvel’s “Black Panther.” Later, the routine features Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” while also highlighting the Nae Nae and the Woah to represent over a decade of Black dance culture. 

She also includes Crip Walking, a dance popularized by West Coast rappers, accompanied by Tupac’s “California Love.” Then, just before her final tumbling pass, Dennis places an imaginary crown on her head to represent “Nia becoming the beautiful Black queen she was always meant to be,” Das says via email. 

Moving for a Movement 

As people raved about her routine—including a retweet from Michelle Obama and a letter from Vice President Kamala Harris—Dennis and her teammates donned new leotards featuring an image of a raised fist for UCLA’s first-ever Black Excellence meet in February. 

“It’s really important to take time to acknowledge the movement that we’re supporting, the Black Lives Matter movement,” Dennis told the press. “I feel empowered … I feel a strong sense of unity, and I honestly feel unstoppable.”