Nia Dennis’ birthday hat was a crown.
The junior celebrated her 21st birthday Feb. 23 by performing a Beyoncé-inspired floor routine that would make her UCLA gymnastics’ latest internet sensation. With a flick of her hair and an imaginary crown on her head, Dennis earned a 9.975 in a dual meet against Utah and attracted more than 20-million views on Twitter.
“I just don’t really know what I did to receive this much positivity,” Dennis said grinning with gratitude.
It culminated on March 11, when she performed a condensed routine on stage at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Her mother, father and 10-year-old sister cheered from the front row.
That was the final time Dennis performed the routine this year.
The following day, the rest of UCLA’s season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The premature end left the Bruins with unfilled goals, but they still celebrated their accomplishments under first-year head coach Chris Waller. Among a historic perfect 10 for senior Grace Glenn and now 22 career perfect scores for Kyla Ross, Dennis’ moment showed the junior’s arrival as a consistent contributor for the Bruins.
Competing on a shredded labrum in her shoulder, a five-year-old injury that will ultimately require surgery, Dennis never scored lower than 9.825 on floor or vault this season, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors on both.
“It feels a lot to me like she figured out what was important to her,” Waller said. “What launched her relatability and self confidence was a) being herself, but b) investing in the team. The more she threw herself into the team, the more authentic she got and all of the sudden, she personally blew up.”
Dennis’ most popular floor routine was her most personal. Inspired by a family tradition of attending the Bayou Classic Battle of the Bands, an annual event in New Orleans featuring historically black universities Southern and Grambling State, Dennis portrays a majorette in the routine.
She high-steps across the floor, striking poses with each movement. She nonchalantly shrugs, as if to say the intricate tumbling pass she just completed is no big deal. And she does it all to a medley of Beyoncé hits from the superstar’s “Homecoming” album recorded from her 2018 Coachella performance featuring live marching bands.
“I wanted to really bring family and culture to the routine,” Dennis said.
In gymnastics, Dennis was rarely surrounded by people who looked like her. But at Battle of the Bands, she saw black women perform with confidence and energy. She wanted to be like them, she said.
With her routine catching fire toward the end of February — Black History Month — and carrying into Women’s History Month, Dennis is no longer just an inspired on-looker.
“It’s crazy that I’ve been able to inspire so many young athletes, young girls, young women by simply doing what I love to do,” Dennis said.
This is not how Dennis thought she would gain gymnastics fame. It was supposed to be the Olympics.
But a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2016, just months before the Olympic trials for the Rio de Janeiro Games, ended that dream.
Dennis, a U.S. national team member from 2013-15, seemed to be on track for the Games. She placed fourth and ninth in the all-around at the P&G Championships in 2014 and 2015, respectively. National team coaches were communicating with her regularly. She and her family had just relocated from their native Ohio to Chicago to help Dennis fine-tune skills at a new gym.
To have it all halt suddenly was like “her entire world came crashing down,” her mother Deetra Dennis said.
Nia stayed in her room for three months. She cried every day. She was like a different person, Deetra said. But she still found ways to practice, lugging her crutches and post-surgery cast to the gym.
“Something inside of me was not letting me decide to quit,” Dennis said. “Just because I watched one of my dreams fade, I’m not going to let the rest of my dreams fade.”
The next dream was UCLA, where she found comfort in the family-like team atmosphere. It was a dramatic shift from elite gymnastics, where every gymnast is “just trying to make it,” Dennis said. She got stuck in her own head during her elite years, retreating into a stubborn state and trying skills again and again and again, even if they weren’t getting better.
Now she voices her frustrations to her teammates during practice. They give her encouragement and the lessons carry over to meets.
Being surrounded by supportive teammates made Dennis reevaluate what she believed was important. She used to look for outside validation from coaches or friends. Now she is fulfilled by her own actions.
“From Day 1 this year, she’s really embraced being herself,” Waller said. “When you embrace being yourself, those who rally around you, those are your family … and you really discover that being yourself is the most empowering thing you can do for yourself and those around you.”
Dennis became more of a leader this season, Glenn said. Seeing Dennis sprint across the gym to cheer on a teammate or offer encouragement for a tough skill was a common sight in practice. Waller said it was like the junior had “eyes on all sides of her head.”
Dennis does it simply because she “loves love,” she said. She draws a tiny heart on her cheek bone for every meet, reminding her to spread love through gymnastics. Her warm personality and signature dance moves made her a fan favorite at Pauley Pavilion even before her internet fame.
She always signs her name in the air, writing in cursive with a dramatic dot on the ‘i’. As a sophomore, she incorporated a crown in a “Queen of the Nile” floor routine.
This season, the crown returned. After her final tumbling pass, Dennis brushes her long black ponytail over her shoulder and reaches toward the floor with two hands. Her fingers extended up, she places the crown on her head and turns to flash the judges a final smile.
The queen of the internet has arrived.