"I wanted to make it evidently clear, Black culture in the sport of gymnastics is not very known ... So representation is very important," Nia Dennis tells PEOPLE

By Morgan M. Evans
February 04, 2021 01:27 PM
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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty

University of California, Los Angeles gymnast Nia Dennis is advocating for the importance of representation through her dynamic gymnastics moves.

Last month, Dennis broke the internet (once again) after her eye-catching floor routine went viral during her team's season-opener competition against Arizona State University.

With the high-energy routine — set to a soundtrack filled with songs from Black musicians including Kendrick LamarTupac ShakurBeyoncéMissy ElliottMegan Thee Stallion, and Soulja Boy — a sparkling Dennis helped clinch her school's victory.

And while the UCLA senior is always excited about a win, the athlete also looks forward to using her unique talents and platform to educate fans about Black culture.

"Here at UCLA, everybody has a freedom to pick your music and do kind of the theme and style that you want to do," Dennis, 21, tells PEOPLE. "Last year, I was going for a majorettes Beyoncé, vibe. So, there was a lot of culture in that but a lot of people didn't really get it. They didn't really see it ...," she says, referring to her first viral floor routine in 2020. The sensational performance captured the essence of Historical Black Colleges and Universities homecomings, celebrating Black fraternity and sorority step shows and drumlines — a theme that was famously replicated in Beyonce's 2018 Coachella headlining set.

Continuing, Dennis says, "A lot of people didn't really understand that a lot of that was Black culture. I wanted to make it evidently clear, Black culture in the sport of gymnastics is not very known. It's heavily overlooked."

"There's not a lot of Black gymnasts so representation is very important and I wanted to bring the Black culture to the sport of gymnastics, especially given the reach that UCLA gymnastics gets in our platform," she explains. "I definitely wanted to capitalize and use it and really get the message that Black Lives Matter across."

Dennis took inspiration for her 2020 routine from the "Formation" singer, but this year the star athlete incorporated a powerful mashup of hit songs by artists who have paved the way for Black people through entertainment success, while also being pivotal voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.

"All of the artists that I chose have had a huge impact in the Black community. Kendrick Lamar, he's a huge activist in his music," Dennis says. "We're not allowed to use any words or noises into your floor music. So since I wasn't able to say it or speak it, I wanted to have the same message come across in a different way through music, through dance. I hope that's how it came across."

Nia Dennis
| Credit: UCLA Gymnastics Twitter
Nia Dennis
| Credit: UCLA Gymnastics Twitter

As her Jan. 24 performance took the internet by storm, the athlete received praise from stars like Elliott and Olympic gymnast Simone Biles for her moves. Bitles retweeted the video posted by UCLA with the caption, "Okay @DennisNia do the damn thing girl" and a fire emoji.

Even former First Lady Michelle Obama championed the gymnast, tweeting that Dennis was "fierce."

Dennis feels she's working as an activist in her own way, while also having fun showing off her personality to the world through her skillset.

"This routine is a reflection of everything that I am as a woman today. I'm still finding myself, but currently, this is where I am," she tells PEOPLE.

And Dennis is looking to the future, post-graduation. "After college, I definitely want to do anything in entertainment," she says.