Sports

The Absurd Backlash to Nia Dennis’ Viral Floor Exercise

It’s long past time the gymnastics world reckoned with its racism.

Nia Dennis beaming during her floor exercise, seated cross legged with her hands behind her and her ponytail in the air.
Nia Dennis during her amazing routine in Pauley Pavilion at UCLA on Saturday. Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images.

Fan favorite UCLA might have shown up tardy to this season’s NCAA gymnastics party—Southern California’s COVID nightmare pushed the Bruins squad’s debut back two weeks—but did they ever put the “fashion” in fashionably late. Not only did the Bruins eke out the W in their dual meet Saturday against more-seasoned Arizona State—despite UCLA’s forced six-month training hiatus, a last-minute injury to star Norah Flatley, and a fully masked conditioning regimen—but they also won in the way only UCLA can, on their very first day back in an empty Pauley Pavilion: They scored another viral floor routine.

Advertisement

Following the legendary Katelyn Ohashi in 2018 and 2019 and her own Beyoncé Homecoming exercise from last year, UCLA senior Nia Dennis unleashed a brand-new masterpiece, set to a whiplash mix including more Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Soulja Boy, Missy Elliot (who proclaimed it “snappin”!), Megan Thee Stallion, and, yes, Tupac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In the immortal words of a nightlife correspondent more erudite than myself, this routine has everything. Dennis pays tribute to Colin Kaepernick (she kneels!), Tommie Smith and John Carlos (she raises a fist!), and Kamala Harris (like a soror, she strolls and she steps!). Oh, and Dennis also throws a huge double backflip just a few months out of shoulder surgery and after that mandated half-year training hiatus.

Advertisement

Dennis’ routine was, as the savvy UCLA athletics media team tweeted—and ’grammed, and Facebooked—an exemplar of #blackexcellence: a senior sociology major at one of the best public institutions in the country performing what one fan termed an electrifying “Blackity Black Black” floor routine for the second year in a row. And, in an NCAA season so far plagued with uncertainty, fear, and underwhelming scores, with a near-perfect 9.95, she nailed it.

Advertisement

However, as happens every year when a UCLA routine goes viral, casual viewers slid into the comments with Things to Say.

Why does it have to be BLACK excellence?
What does her SKIN COLOR have to do with it?
What if a white gymnast did this amazing routine?
Leave race out of the gym please.

The astounding sensitivity among so many observers to the mere mention of the word Black in the context of praise for a stellar athlete who just debuted an entire exercise celebrating Black culture is a reflection of life in a country where it’s still somehow controversial to opine that Black lives matter. Sadly, if usefully, these reactions reveal just how disproportionately present such attitudes are within the gymnastics world—and it’s long past time the whole sport did something about it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Women’s gymnastics was, until fairly recently, a space almost exclusively dominated by whiteness. White athletes were considered the standard. Floor music came in two varieties: classical and elevator. And before the open-ended scoring system debuted in the mid-2000s, it was an open secret that international judges preferred the “lines” of a girl with the “international look”—an unsubtle dog whistle for “the skinny white Russian ones.” When, in the middle of the past decade, the greatest gymnast of all time emerged as a Black American woman, one Italian gymnast spat that she’d score better in blackface. And lest you think the NCAA is some rarified “Kumbaya” world, just last year, former Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku detailed the stomach-churning bullying and “jokes” she endured at the hands of her white teammates and coaches.

While whiteness has dominated the sport, Black excellence has long been present in the sport, notably including Dianne Durham’s groundbreaking 1983 U.S. national championship and continuing through the stellar careers of superstar elites such as Betty Okino, Dominique Dawes, Gabby Douglas, and the GOAT herself Simone Biles.* The NCAA has also been blessed with numerous Black superstars in recent years, including Lloimincia Hall, Elizabeth Price, and Trinity Thomas, just to name a few. These gymnasts still had to contend with obstacles endemic to the institutional whiteness of the sport, among them being the only Black athletes on their teams or encountering open racism as children. Douglas, the 2012 Olympic All-Around champion, revealed to Oprah Winfrey that she was almost bullied out of the sport entirely.

Advertisement

American gymnastics’ whiteness problem is another product (or perhaps a cause) of the sport’s social conservatism. Until very recently, young female gymnasts were expected to be malleable, quiet, and above all obedient to authority—qualities that enabled a notorious predator to ingratiate himself into the USA Gymnastics organization, until it nearly destroyed itself to protect him.

Some of gymnastics culture is likely shaped by geography. Massive, warehouse-style gymnastics training centers are not affordable in major metropolitan areas, where greater proportions of nonwhite Americans live. Instead, gyms have long been a mainstay of largely white exurbs. Some of gymnastics culture is also a product of the sport’s connection to traditional femininity, with hair and makeup looks that I can best describe as “pageant, plus chalk.” The result—at least until hundreds of brave girls and women decided to testify against Larry Nassar—was a sport that, whatever its athletes’ actual politics, vaunted the ideals of little girls being seen and not heard, valued only for their bodies, until those bodies broke.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But the sport is changing. In addition to 2021 Olympic hopefuls such as Biles, Morgan Hurd, and Laurie Hernandez being openly political (and progressive) on their social media channels, at the NCAA level, UCLA’s athletic conference—the Pac-12—this month debuted the G-PAC (short for Gymnasts for Peace, Action, and Change), a gymnastics-only, division-wide, and student-led initiative composed of athletes from each member university. Among related goals, it aims to foster diversity and inclusion in the sport by creating inclusive meet themes, hosting guest speakers on campuses (someday!), and fostering division-wide discussion. UCLA’s delegates to G-PAC are sophomore Kalyany Steele and junior Margzetta Frazier, whose own delightful floor routines have also paid tribute to Black luminaries such as drag legend Kevin Aviance. “I am very proud to be hands-on in the long-overdue process of making diversity and inclusion in sports the number one priority,” Frazier told UCLA Athletics last week. (She has also recently tweeted, correctly, that collegiate athletes should not have to stick to sports.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

Thanks to the young members of G-PAC, the Pac-12, at the very least, will begin the tough job of dismantling the sport’s entrenched structures. Instead of a world where nobody “sees color” in the gym, perhaps instead we can aim for one where the Blackness of the next 12-year-old Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles, or Nia Dennis is not merely tolerated but celebrated.

Correction, Jan. 26, 2021: This article originally misidentified Dianne Durham as the 1983 collegiate national champion. She was U.S. national champion.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcherGoogle Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Advertisement