Choreographer helps UCLA gymnasts showcase their break-the-internet individuality
In her first two years as UCLA’s choreographer, Bijoya “BJ” Das has set the internet aflame with three viral floor routines. Two of the star-making performances were choreographed during a pandemic that limited the assistant coach’s ability to interact with the gymnasts she was coaching.
The challenges continued for Das this season as she split time during the summer and fall working on Simone Biles’ “Gold Over America Tour.” The post-Olympic event left Das exhausted and on a tight time schedule to begin UCLA’s season.
But seeing her work on the floor with the Bruins this year wouldn’t suggest any fatigue.
“Somehow, I think the routines are the best they’ve ever been,” coach Chris Waller said. “It’s remarkable what she has done. … Each of these routines reflects the personality of each athlete in a really special and powerful way.”
In her third year as UCLA’s floor choreographer, Das is trying to up the ante on the team’s trademark event by emphasizing each gymnast’s individuality. The Bruins will unveil their full lineup Monday at Minnesota, where UCLA will make a delayed season debut after its original season opener was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols.
A crowd of about 1,000 attended the Meet the Bruins gymnastics exhibition Friday at Pauley Pavilion. For UCLA, ‘it felt like things were back to normal.’
The Bruins, who missed the NCAA championships as a team last season for the first time since 2006 , were ranked sixth in the nation in floor last year. It was a dramatic fall for the team ranked first for three consecutive years before that, including in Das’ first year as choreographer.
Former coach Valorie Kondos Field turned the event into a signature for UCLA. Her background as a professional ballet dancer fostered the team’s joyful environment and unique floor routines that generated viral stars, national TV attention and seven NCAA championships.
When Waller was vying for the head coaching position in 2020, the first question in his interview was who will take over the floor routines.
Das was the answer.
“I love her choreography. She’s so fun to work with. I like how it brings a new style, a different style out of me.”
— Emma Malabuyo, UCLA gymnast, on BJ Das
Entering her third year as the keeper of UCLA’s most prized event, Das was expecting less pressure as she found her rhythm. Instead, she stays awake at night asking herself how she’s going to top last year when Nia Dennis went viral with her routine honoring Black culture and Margzetta Frazier followed with a Janet Jackson-themed performance that caught the attention of the pop star herself.
Breaking the internet has become an annual tradition in Westwood, but instead of fishing for the latest sensation, Das keeps the focus on something simpler: fun.
“The thing that has been challenging really is me just getting my own way instead of being free about it,” Das said. “When it just feels like play again, I feel like I’m at my best.”
Released from the restrictive nature of elite gymnastics, many UCLA gymnasts find freedom in their first college floor routines. They’re allowed to select popular music, smile and dance for longer stretches to show their personality.
BJ Das talks to L.A. Times Today in 2021 about the UCLA gymnastics team’s viral videos.
Das used upbeat music to coax freshman Emma Malabuyo’s bubbly character out of the Olympic alternate. Malabuyo came to UCLA after finishing ninth in the all-around at the 2021 Olympic trials and presented Das with music similar to what senior Norah Flatley used two years ago. The songs were from British DJ TroyBoi, who blends electronic dance music and hip-hop.
Das instead envisioned something funkier.
“She’s got a very big, very vibrant, upbeat personality and I just wanted the routine to capture that,” Das said of Malabuyo. “When she first came, she was just looking to people that inspired her and I wanted her to look to herself to be inspired as opposed to trying to emulate in any way what she’s seen in the past. I just wanted her to be her.”
Malabuyo debuted her routine, which includes music by Janelle Monáe and Big Boi, at the Meet the Bruins exhibition. She flashed a bright smile while doing the Carlton — the dance made famous by the character on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — and playing to her teammates by leading them in dueling dance breaks.
“I love her choreography,” Malabuyo said. “She’s so fun to work with. I like how it brings a new style, a different style out of me.”
Das, who has performed with such artists as Beyoncé, Pink and Usher, leans on her experience as a professional dancer and choreographer to inject life into UCLA’s floor show. She and the gymnasts draw on personal experiences and get inspiration from movies, TV shows and concerts.
“It’s not about one routine and the next routine. It’s about what’s going to look good in a show and what’s going to bring out each girl’s star quality and their strengths.”
— BJ Das
Das didn’t have to go far for inspiration this year after working on Biles’ national tour. The show combined elements of Das’ experience of choreographing TV shows like “GLOW” and “The Masked Singer” and her background in gymnastics. The former Washington gymnast who turned to dance after a career-ending Achilles tendon injury was in her element.
Working as an assistant choreographer with Kondos Field, Das attended pre-production meetings, skeleton rehearsals and production rehearsals with the full cast. There was less than a week of rehearsals, a nearly unheard of challenge for the amount of choreography and staging that went into the show.
But when she attended the first week of shows in September, Das reveled in the performance. She loved seeing the world’s best gymnasts transition from serious Olympic competitors to performers simply connecting with the audience and having fun with their friends.
The experience helped her take a broader look at her role in UCLA’s floor rotation.
“Sometimes I have to step back and take a bird’s eye view when it comes to floor and be like, ‘All right, I’m creating an entire show,’ ” Das said. “It’s not about one routine and the next routine. It’s about what’s going to look good in a show and what’s going to bring out each girl’s star quality and their strengths.”
Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles is chasing her Hollywood dreams. She’s driven to develop as an artist, win a gymnastics national championship at UCLA and appear in a Marvel movie.
With UCLA, Das attends every practice and meet. Fans post highlight clips of her dancing on the side of the floor. Between practices, she’s pouring over music possibilities, tracking down instrumental tracks for songs and fine-tuning routines.
The hours can easily add up to a full-time job, but Das does it for free. She is designated as a “volunteer assistant coach.”
With NCAA rules allowing for only three paid coaches, choreographers like Das often are left off the payroll. She has to prioritize paying jobs over practices sometimes during the season as she continues to audition for roles and choreograph professionally.
Despite the busy schedule, Das keeps time for UCLA. It’s a place she can pass her passion for dance to gymnasts who were once in her shoes.
“I feel like I have a purpose here at this school and just in the sport in a weird way,” Das said. “I’m not saying that I’m the only person by any means, but it feels like I didn’t have that experience as a gymnast and I want to give these girls a different experience than I had and my way of doing that is dance. Dance is my love language.”
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