Months after ending her gymnastics career at UCLA, Nia Dennis jumped, jumped and danced on the iconic Met Gala steps. A marching band was playing behind her. The cameras flashed.
This viral gymnast always knows how to steal the show.
Dennis’ breakthrough entrance to the Met Gala in 2021 marked the former UCLA star’s transition into his post-gymnastics life, a phase that could garner as much attention as his two viral floor routines. Stepping away from the sport has only widened Dennis’ influence as she goes down different and unpredictable paths. The 23-year-old is pursuing dance, modeling and acting, preparing to start her own business and continuing to advocate for issues such as mental health awareness.
With such a busy schedule, it’s no wonder Dennis jokes that it feels like over a year has passed since she graduated from UCLA with a degree in sociology.
“All my hard work has paid off,” Dennis said.
Just nine months before wearing a custom Stella McCartney blue bodysuit and layer of diamond mesh on the Met Gala red carpet, Dennis was dominating the internet with clips of his 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 – was surreal, even though it weathered a similar storm 11 months prior with her Beyonce marching band routine in 2020.
But none of this compared to receiving 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 going punk.
The memorable entry was planned by McCartney to fit the 2021 theme of “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” Executing McCartney’s vision was like learning and performing a floor routine, Dennis said.
She worked with UCLA assistant coach BJ Das to choreograph a simple routine that they knew would match any music played by the Brooklyn United Marching Band dressed in red, white and blue . Like podium practice at the US Championships, Dennis practiced on the stairs with the group days before the event. His parents gave him a pep talk before the show.
“Once my signal came on, I turned it on and it was like nothing else mattered,” Dennis said. “I was just having the time of my life.”
He didn’t stop at the opening of the most prestigious fashion event of the year while representing McCartney. The designer then invited Dennis to sit front row at her show at Paris Fashion Week and asked the former US national team member to be the spokesperson for her “Agent of Kindness” in February.
“She’s part of a generation of athletes who aren’t shy about using their platforms to promote equality and inclusion in and outside of their sport,” McCartney said in a statement announcing her latest collection. “Our intention was not just to celebrate the movement of athletes in sport, but the movements they represent, and Nia truly represents what it means to see beyond yourself and give back to her community.”
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, learning to express her emotions in new ways through the movements of her face and body. She regularly visits dance studios, sometimes dancing for hours at a time. Then she dances a little more alone for her own joy.
Dancing, whether for a touring artist or on a TV show, is one of Dennis’ biggest dreams. She has already tasted it while participating in Simone Biles’ post-Olympic Gold Over America tour last year. The event, which also included former UCLA star Katelyn Ohashi and current UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles, championed women’s empowerment and mental health in 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 competing too dangerous for her. The United States, including Chiles, won silver without their top star, whose bold stance became a rallying cry on his post-Olympic tour.
The 35-city tour was part concert, part gymnastics exhibition, and part total celebration of women doing something their own way.
“It was really awesome to be part of this story, to be part of such a drastic change in our sport, to put mental health first and talk about mental health and literally create a whole health show mental,” Dennis said. “I really felt honored to be there.”
Following Biles’ lead, Dennis has also made it a point to talk about his own post-gymnastics mental health journey. She posts updates of her therapy sessions on Twitter. Her new business will focus on personal care.
After relying on her body for incredible feats, Dennis is proud to say she is now using her mind more to shape her future. Her Instagram was once dominated by photos of her wearing a leotard competing or on the floor during a meet. Now, she’s mixed sponsored posts for adidas and Pressed Juicery with personal photos from a family vacation in the Dominican Republic and behind-the-scenes video from Paris Fashion Week.
“We’re so used to seeing me as a gymnast,” Dennis said. “I’m excited to bring other things.”
But Dennis hasn’t forgotten where it all started. In a recent post, she returned to the UCLA workout gym, where she threw the same double-backs and double-layouts on a trampoline that she had previously performed in competitions. She sticks a stimulating side antenna on the beam and strikes a blow, dropping her head into the crook of her left arm with a bright smile.
She still has it.