The University of California Los Angeles Bruins gymnastics team has more than one secret weapon. Yes, there is Nia Dennis, whose floor routine, a lush and powerful celebration of black culture, went viral last week. The team also has another rising star: the choreographer Bijoya Das.
BJ, as she is called, has been the Bruins’ volunteer assistant trainer since 2019. As a former gymnast, she also has a deep relationship with dance. A commercial dancer and choreographer who has lived in Los Angeles since 2007, she has performed with Beyoncé, Pink, Usher, Avril Lavigne and others.
But she also loves when dance is paired with something else, like wrestling – her choreography was featured on season two of “Glow” – and especially gymnastics, where dance is part of the artistic part of an athlete’s score, to which too the execution belongs, technique and composition.
At the college level, dance is an important part: it connects a routine and lets a gymnast’s personality shine on the mat. As Das explained, the dance element is subjective and usually not an area where many deductions are made. But it’s important. At UCLA, she continues a strong dance tradition, following the path of former Bruins head coach Valorie Kondos Field, who, Das said, “came to UCLA as a ballet dancer and choreographer who knew nothing about gymnastics. ”
She made the team dance, just like Das does now with her gripping floor routines, including two viral performances by Dennis. The first and last season was set for a Beyoncé medley. This year, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and last summer’s protests, includes Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”; Missy Elliott’s “Pass That Dutch”; and Monica with The Franchize Boyz ‘”Everytime tha Beat Drop”, one of Dennis’ most popular TikToks.
During the 90 seconds of the floor routine, Dennis sails through tumbling passes – all the more impressive since she underwent shoulder surgery in June – and weaves the dance non-stop. She begins on a stern remark by taking one knee, raising a fist in the air, and rising to salute the Wakanda Forever. “Then she meets a little Nae Nae and a Woah,” said Das, referring to TikTok movements. “It’s legendary new age hip hop. She just loves to dance so we thought it would be fun. “
Dennis got electrified last year and has become even more fluid when it comes to combining dance and gymnastics. The seamless routine includes moments from TikTok dances as well as some steps, the percussive tradition found in black fraternities and sororities. It was inspired by Dennis’ father who helped out by sending out tutorials.
One of the most beautiful moments comes when Das faces Dennis in a cameo and dances with her. They had just changed the timing of how Dennis would get out of a fall pass and she was nervous about missing it.
“We all do the routines on the sidelines anyway,” said Das. “Now I feel like at every meeting of the season, I’ll stand there and do that to her. It’s like our thing now. “
Dennis, who said she found movement a form of freedom, was inspired by That. “I try to be like you, to move like you,” she said in an interview. “She definitely knows how to choreograph for each individual. It’s so hard to do. Not everyone can dance the same way. Not everyone can really dance, you know “
Dennis’s accomplishments aren’t the only UCLA athletes to go viral. In 2016 it was Sophina DeJesus; in 2019 Katelyn Ohashi. This is a team of individuals. Look for Margzetta Frazier – another incredible gymnast-dancer who will soon be introducing a new that routine – and for Chae Campbell, who is even-tempered, bright and just a newbie.
That’s proud of them all. She started gymnastics at the age of 6 and was continuing her sophomore year at the University of Washington when an Achilles tear forced her to quit. “It was a sudden end to my career that I definitely didn’t want,” she said.
After recovering, she told herself if she couldn’t be a gymnast she would become a dancer, something she always loved. “I started taking dance classes in Seattle and I really fell in love with hip-hop,” she said. “I also used jazz funk. I had so much fun finding joy in something. “
And she continues to enjoy dancing even during the pandemic. The one who created the movement for the new video for the Sam Feldt-Kesha collaboration “Stronger” – it’s about finding strength in difficult times and includes a fight sequence – also choreographed the Bruins intro video this season, another Festival for gymnastics and dance.
Recently Das spoke about their approach to the Bruins, how their commercial career influenced their choreography, and about the sensational Dennis who, by the way, didn’t choose to train for the Olympics.
What follows are edited excerpts from this conversation.
Do you want to change the gymnastics?
I think less and less about it: How can I change every athlete for the better and how can I change the program for the better? But when I saw how Nia’s routine had affected people, I realized that I might have a bigger purpose with all of this, and that it’s not just about getting good results and bringing out cool moves.
It’s more about inspiring people to reach their full potential, pursuing their dreams or trying something they thought they couldn’t do because of the color of their skin or because it doesn’t fit into shape.
How do you work with the gymnasts?
They all had a very tough year. I just want the routines to please them and make them happy. This year it wasn’t really about pleasing people or doing what the judges or the gymnastics critics want. It was more about what would make you feel good as an athlete?
In our team we do a studio on Mondays, where I teach a dance class. Having some type of dance training helps with coordination and balance and working through the feet.
I feel like Nia took this workout really seriously. I think she played more of a character last year. It worked and it was a great time watching. This year I feel like she is playing herself: how she lies on the ground is how she is in life.
How did your commercial dance experience get into gymnastics?
One thing that is very important to me is musicality and timing. Not only do we aimlessly strike poses and dance moves and move through the music. We actually hit accents and beats and I want the timing to look good. I’m in a lot of them about that.
Your title confuses me. Are you really a volunteer?
Yes. There are a lot of different rules in the NCAA. And one of the rules in gymnastics is that you are only allowed to have three paid trainers on staff. Often the volunteer trainer is the choreographer.
Wow. This is just so wrong!
You know how dancers are: you just follow your heart because you loved it and then you make bad business decisions along the way.
How do you find a balance between dance and technical skills in a routine?
There are certain college gymnastics requirements they must have, and it is usually two or three fall passes depending on how difficult they are. And then they have to meet a jump requirement. Everything else is dance and art. I choreograph the split times and make them fun to see.
Do gymnasts have more freedom to dance in college than in international competition?
I don’t think it’s freedom.
So the international competition is just boring for me?
[Laughs] These international gymnasts need to do more tricks. It just leaves less time for performance and less energy can be used for it. But it is also the culture of elite gymnastics. When you notice, many of them don’t smile; They don’t actually occur. You just do these in-between movements and poses.
I have noticed!
There are some international elites who are extremely artistic on the ground, but the culture is usually a bit more classic and maybe ballet based. So you won’t actually see people doing the woah in their elite routine – as much as it would be really fun for someone to just shake them up.