• Verneda Adele White

Nia Dennis: For Love and For [Redefining] the Culture

Photo credit: UCLA Athletics

In 2016, Nia Dennis almost quit gymnastics. It is hard to believe that we may never have witnessed the gift we received on February 23rd, when Nia’s Beyoncé-inspired, unapologetic #blackgirljoy, with the crown of a Queen floor routine broke the internet. Nia Dennis is a force to be reckoned with, an originator, who so perfectly encapsulates the pulse of Gen Z, embodying what all the women of color in sports who have come before her worked for…the right to be ourselves.

Bright-eyed and fresh-faced, Nia Dennis, carries herself with a presence that many people may mistake as your average, joyful, full of boundless energy 21-year old college junior. The only thing is, Nia Dennis is ANYTHING but average. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her college apartment, with box braids, and a dark blue t-shirt with the letters UCLA splashed across the front, I was invited into the unassuming world of this dynamic young woman, whose humility only makes her even more impossible not to love.

When Nia’s powerhouse routine came across my IG feed, I only had one question, “who IS this girl!?” It struck me, while Nia's routine was trending with celebrity shout outs, and media attention from top outlets ranging from ESPN to Oprah Magazine, not to mention a sit down with Ellen; I wanted more of a deep dive into Nia’s point of view and was thrilled when she agreed to chat with us here on OMNoire.

Redefining "For the Culture":

Right out the gate, Nia showed me she is a young woman after my own heart. Her collection of life stories (to date of course) immediately revealed our first commonality, with both of us having family in New Orleans, LA. She took me back to the last time I walked into a skybox at the Mercedes Benz Superdome, during Thanksgiving weekend, to watch the “Battle of the Bands” for the Bayou Classic. Nia grew up with her family making the annual pilgrimage to New Orleans, where the Battle of the Bands, is one of the quintessential markers of the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) experience.

While the bands do put on a show, the music serves as a backdrop to those both Nia and I are really watching, the majorette dancers. I did not ask her if she is a Grambling or Southern fan, but in all cases, the majorettes' high energy, creativity, and spirit represent a piece of African-American culture that is not easily duplicated. But then came Nia.

In taking inspiration from warm childhood memories, and the confidence of being comfortable in her own skin, Nia’s desire to honor both her family's culture, and be for the culture, led her to find her own way of replicating the southern pride of the HBCU majorette. Coupled with the fierceness of Beyoncé’s documentary “Homecoming”, Nia gravitated towards Queen Bey’s nod to HBCUs as a fitting score, to bring us a floor routine that immediately vaulted (pun intended) to viral status. For several reasons, her epic performance highlights just how much the sport of gymnastics has changed.

The Power in Just Doing What You Love:

Nia has been a gymnast since age 4, or as she says, “basically my entire life.” She grew up in Columbus, OH, and with the support of her parents and family, later moved to Chicago for training, before embarking on her tenure at UCLA. When asked about her greatest motivation to do what she does, she wholeheartedly expressed the love she feels from her younger sister, Mya.

ND:The passion and love [Mya] shows towards me just makes me go harder because everything she’s given me, transfers through me, and then I can put it into what I am doing…I use her good energy and good vibes to get me through my days, and my teammates are definitely a plus.

The sisterhood Nia feels with her teammates is inspiring, negating the stereotypes we often hear about young women not getting along. Instead, Nia refers to her teammates as her sisters. Their tight-knit bond was evident in the outpouring of cheers and celebration, as Nia’s teammates rushed to congratulate her, in her final crown landing at the infamous Pac-12 Conference meet, and also points to the significance of UCLA valuing diversity on its team.

Photo credit: UCLA Athletics

Personally, I grew up with one gymnastics icon that looked like me…the one and only Dominique Dawes. Perfectly manicured hair buns, classical music, and no doubt one of our greatest trailblazers in the sport, whom Nia cites as one of her biggest influences. Yet, when I reflect on my experience of watching Dawes over two decades ago, it is completely different from our experience of watching Nia today. The mid-1990s context in which I experienced my awe of Dawes, was shaped by a sense of her proving that we as black women are just as good; that we can play the sport and play the game, fitting into the elite world of gymnastics, rather than standing out.

Part of what makes Nia’s moment so special is that a generation later, with Gabby Douglas (who Nia had the very cool experience of training with, in Ohio following Gabby’s 2012 Olympics appearance) and Simone Biles further turning up the dial on acceptance, Nia had the ability to fully stand in her truth, expressing her authentic experience, without having to adjust for a running cultural standard. Gymnastics has begun to make strides versus baby steps in a sport that has not historically celebrated differences, especially not our unique experiences as black women. When asked if she feels the walls have been broken down, or if there is still a pressure in gymnastics for black women to conform to a certain cultural standard, Nia concurred.

ND: I definitely think the sport of gymnastics has evolved tremendously, and UCLA has a very diverse team, so that’s made it easier for me to do my own thing…Pushing boundaries is something I would say I did a little bit with this routine.”

There is a bounty growing among the next generation of gymnasts who are not afraid to push boundaries, who are NOT afraid to stand out. Nia went on to acknowledge that while not necessarily overt or verbalized, in her experience, the sport still has progress to make with what is often left unsaid, a look, a feeling, or body language that indicates where current boundaries are being pushed. Nia took a methodical chance of creating a routine that celebrated her, her culture, our culture. It was a risk that paid off despite lingering micro-aggressions our society must continue to eradicate.

As effortless as Nia makes it all seem, it is easy to assume that her gymnastics journey has been easy, but as with most rising stars, this is not the case. It is never a straight line.

The Story Behind Every Journey: Never Quit!

When I asked Nia about her goals for the 2021 Summer Olympics,

ND: “I have been doing gymnastics pretty much my whole life growing up, so 2016 was my biggest goal, and I tore my Achilles [tendon] 3 months before the Olympics. I felt really destroyed because I was home-schooled, my family moved for training, I was training 40 hours a week and I felt like everything I sacrificed just went down the drain; like I trained for 16 years of my life to make it to this point, just to have it lost like that was really hard. So, I definitely wanted to quit after that, I didn’t want to do gymnastics ever again.”

Fortunately for us, Nia never quit.

ND: “It was really hard to find that motivation again, but there was something inside of me that wasn’t letting me be done with this sport. I couldn’t just end the way it would have ended if I had quit back in 2016. I just knew I couldn’t end that way, so I had to keep going even if it wasn’t on the elite track, it was in college which is still a great accomplishment…coming to UCLA has also been one of my biggest goals, as well as the Olympics, so just because I didn’t make one goal, I wouldn’t stop myself from making another goal and more goals to come.”

To regain her excitement to continue gymnastics, Nia spoke about one of the central themes we often refer to here on OMNoire for becoming our best selves, visualization. While reviewing highlights from her best meets, and drawing on her passions for dance and performing, Nia drew a powerful lesson in not giving up, even in our darkest hour, because the universe has a plan.

Today, like the rest of us, Nia is adjusting to life in quarantine, due to Covid-19. With universities closed through the end of the year and no gyms or training facilities to access, she expressed the abrupt ending to her gymnastic season has been difficult. Yet, her ability to keep a positive outlook towards the future, with an emphasis on remaining as healthy and safe as possible, is an example each of us can take to heart. I went on to ask Nia her perspective on fitness and final thoughts.

VW: What advice would you share with those of us on our fitness journey; particularly someone at the beginning of their journey?

ND:Set little goals for yourself, and don’t focus on the main goal. As a whole, you need to take it day by day, and focus on accomplishing your little goals and get 1% better every single day instead…it’s a marathon, not a sprint. As long as you are improving by 1% in some areas of your life, I would say that is a great start towards achieving your main goal.”

VW: What would you like to see changed in the world?

ND:Give more love! We need so much love. I’m huge on love. I just give so much love because I know how I would want to be treated, and I just always keep that foundation in my head to treat others the way I would want to be treated, and I want to be loved. I just spread love, spread as much as I can. I think that’s what everyone should do or should try.”

Photo credit: UCLA Athletics

That love is easily felt in all that Nia puts out in the world. I smiled as she relayed her surprise at all the love she received from her floor routine, which has garnered over 30 million views and counting. Let us take a cue. This is not only a young woman who has worked extremely hard with dedication to reach this point, but she genuinely loves what she does. Her future is bright.

Whether or not Nia pursues a future Olympics Games, her presence in gymnastics is going to have a permanent influence on generations to come. Her light has shined on the freedom of expressing our own unique experiences, in a sport previously dominated by a European lens. Let Nia’s work add to gymnastics’ collective shift. Whether Black, Chinese, Latinx, Russian, or everything in between, our narratives are valid.

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