“I had to… for the culture,” Nia Dennis captioned her electric gymnastics routine on Instagram.
She wasn’t lying. Pick up your plaques, peaceful protests and hit the mats. The continuous re-invention of sports has no brakes. Crashing through the glass ceilings of what can be expressed through gymnastic ability, Nia Dennis celebrated Black excellence in her latest performance.
Pride, loyalty and identity have always been important factors in sports, however it has never quite been as prominent as it is today. Institutional racism is ingrained in college sports, this is clear from out of touch investors and insular archaic outlooks.
In 2020, we saw many of these programs rightfully exposed. Ex-Florida State gymnast Kennedy Baker detailed the racism in a tweet. During her Freshman season, an incident with her teammates was quietly swept under the carpet by the college as she was told to “move on from what her team-mates had said”.
Almost with the same breath, living the same thoughts, Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku caller her college out for riding the BLM bandwagon. The Alabama Sports programme tweeted a plain black square and the caption ‘unity’ on the 2 June. To Kaiku, this was brutally disingenuous. Instead of experiencing ‘unity’ she had overheard teammates using racial slurs and was the subject of racist jokes. This was not unity, but conformity.
The poignancy of Nia Dennis’ performance in 2021 is therefore made more so by the year that has just passed. Shining a light onto Black culture in a classically white sport, the seniors routine included a medley of Black icons. Music from Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliot, Soulja Boy and Tupac cut together to provide the backing track for the performance.
Her bravery was reflected in her score, she was rewarded with a score of 9.950 out of a possible 10, clinching the win for UCLA over Arizona State. Not only did this performance make waves within the Sport, but it made a huge impact on Twitter. Missy Elliot and Olympic champion Simone Biles were just some of the notable figures praising Dennis online.
Both the objective success and virality of the performance beg the question of why we don’t see routines like this in the Olympics? Surely a national event in which culture and individuality are celebrated would benefit from performances encouraging Black excellence.
In an interview with The Lily, Dennis admitted that the Olympics was very “cookie cutter” adding “that’s just the culture of elite gymnastics. That’s always how it’s been. When I was doing elite gymnastics back in the day, it was like, ‘don’t smile, don’t laugh, don’t talk.’”
From the delirious looks on her coaches and teammates faces to the personality-filled and spirited gymnastics, Nia Dennis’ performance was anything but ‘cookie cutter’. She is truly pushing boundaries of expression in sports, and it’s amazing that she’s encouraging a future generation of Black gymnasts.