After going viral, what’s next for UCLA’s Nia Dennis?

Months after ending her gymnastics career at UCLA, Nia Dennis twirled, jumped and danced down the legendary steps of the Met Gala. A brass band was playing behind her. Cameras flashed.

This viral gymnast still knows how to steal the show.

Dennis’ internet-shattering performance at the 2021 Met Gala marked the former UCLA star’s transition into her post-gymnastics life, a phase that could garner as much attention as her two viral floor routines. Leaving sport behind has only increased Dennis’ influence as she explores other, unpredictable paths. The 23-year-old has devoted herself to dancing, modeling and acting, is preparing to start her own business and remains active on issues such as mental health awareness.

Nia Dennis and members of the Brooklyn United Marching Band perform at The Met in September 2021.

Nia Dennis and members of the Brooklyn United Marching Band perform at The Met in September 2021.

(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)

With such a busy schedule, it’s no wonder Dennis jokes that it feels like more than a year has passed since she received her sociology degree from UCLA.

“All my hard work has paid off,” Dennis said.

Just nine months before Dennis wore a tailored blue Stella McCartney body suit and a diamond mesh layer to the red carpet at the Met Gala, Dennis was dominating the internet with clips of her Black Excellence floor routine. The attention — appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Inside the NBA, tweets from Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott, nearly 12 million views on Twitter — felt surreal, despite having gone through a similar firestorm with her Beyonce 11 months earlier had marching band routine in 2020.

Gif for Nia Dennis #BlackExcellence story. Photos by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.

Gif for Nia Dennis #BlackExcellence story. Photos by Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

But none of that compares to a call from McCartney. The famous designer said she wanted Dennis to represent her at one of the most exclusive events in the world. Dennis thought she was punk.

The memorable entrance was planned by McCartney to match the 2021 theme of In America: A Lexicon of Fashion. Implementing McCartney’s vision is like learning and performing a floor exercise, Dennis said.

She worked with UCLA assistant coach BJ Das to choreograph a simple routine that they knew would go with any music played by the red-white-blue-clad Brooklyn United Marching Band. As with podium practice at the US Championships, Dennis was allowed to practice with the band on the stairs days before the event. Her parents gave her a pep talk before the performance.

“As soon as my cue came up, I turned it on and it was like nothing else mattered,” Dennis said. “I just had the time of my life.”

It didn’t stop there at the opening of the most prestigious fashion event of the year while representing McCartney. The designer later invited Dennis to have a front row seat during her show at Paris Fashion Week and enlisted the former US National Team member to speak for her Agent of Kindness campaign in February.

“She is part of a generation of athletes who are not afraid to use their platforms to push for equality and inclusivity inside and outside their sport,” McCartney said in a statement announcing her latest collection. “Our intent was to not only celebrate the movement of athletes in sport, but the movements they stand for, and Nia truly represents what it means to look beyond yourself and give back to your community.”

Nia Dennis attends the Met Gala to celebrate the opening of the "In America: A Lexicon of Fashion" exhibition

Nia Dennis attends the Met Gala to celebrate the opening of the In America: A Lexicon of Fashion exhibition on September 13, 2021.

(Evan Agostini / Associated Press)

Dennis, who grew up painfully shy outside the gym, now wants to pursue a career in front of the camera. She takes acting classes once a week and learns how to express emotions in new ways through her face and body movements. She regularly goes to dance studios and sometimes dances for hours at a time. Then, to her own delight, she dances a little more alone.

Dancing, whether for a touring artist or on a TV show, is one of Dennis’ big dreams. She got a taste of it when she performed on Simone Biles’ post-Olympic Gold Over America Tour last year. The event, which also featured former UCLA star Katelyn Ohashi and current UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles, championed women’s empowerment and mental health in the light of Biles’ experience at the Tokyo Olympics.

Biles shocked the sports world by withdrawing from the team event, citing mental health issues that made it too dangerous for her to compete. The United States, including Chile, won silver without their top star, whose brave stance became a rallying cry during their post-Olympic tour.

The 35-city tour was part concert, part gymnastics exhibition, and a total celebration of women doing things their way.

“It felt really great to be a part of this story, to be part of such a drastic change in our sport, to prioritize mental health and talk about mental health and literally create a whole show about mental health,” Dennis said. “I felt really honored to be there.”

Following Biles’ lead, Dennis has also made it a point to talk about her own post-gymnastics mental health journey. She posts updates from her therapy sessions on Twitter. Your new business will focus on self-care.

After relying on her body for amazing accomplishments, Dennis is proud to say she’s now using her mind more to shape her future. Her Instagram was once dominated by photos of her dressed in a leotard or lying on the floor during a date. Now she mixed sponsored posts for adidas and Pressed Juicery with personal photos from a family vacation in the Dominican Republic and a behind-the-scenes video at Paris Fashion Week.

“We’re so used to seeing me as a gymnast,” Dennis said. “I look forward to bringing other things with me.”

But Dennis hasn’t forgotten where it all began. In a recent post, she returned to the UCLA practice studio, where she threw the same double-backs and double layouts on a trampoline that she once performed in competitions. She sticks a challenging side antenna on the beam and hits a dab, dropping her head into the crook of her left arm with a beaming smile.

She still has it. After going viral, what’s next for UCLA’s Nia Dennis?

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