Dance, Dance: An Interview With UCLA Gymnastics Choreographer BJ Das

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The UCLA gymnastics season might have gotten off to a late start due to COVID-19, but when the team finally returned to Pauley Pavilion, they picked up right where they left off in 2020—with another viral floor routine. The star of this year’s viral performance is the same as the star of last year’s breakout routine—Bruin senior Nia Dennis.

I wrote about Dennis and her routine in this newsletter a few weeks back but let’s watch it again, shall we?

This routine blew up on social media and was touted for highlighting Black culture, both in musical choices—Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliot, Tupac, to name a few of the artists included—and the choreographic choices from stepping to c walking to kneeling and the Black power salute.

Though the performance is all Dennis, the creation of the routine was the result of a collaboration between the gymnast and UCLA’s volunteer assistant coach/choreographer, Bijoya “BJ” Das.

Das, who joined the Bruins staff for the 2019-2020 season after the retirement of Valorie Kondos Field, who served as the longtime head coach and choreographer of the UCLA team, has, perhaps, the perfect blend of experience and expertise needed to put together a captivating, viral-worthy floor routine.

Das is a former gymnast herself, having competed for the University of Washington as a walk-on athlete until injury forced her retirement at the end of her sophomore season. After college, Das moved to Los Angeles to embark on a career in dance. She’s performed alongside Beyonce, Pink, and Usher, and has done choreography for the Emmys and for TV shows like GLOW.

Das’ first season with the Bruins was the truncated 2020 one, and she had a couple of hits right off the bat. First, there was Dennis’ first viral routine, her Beyonce “Homecoming” one. And then there was my personal favorite, the Soul Train-inspired routine performed by Margzetta Frazier, who was then a sophomore. (If Frazier doesn’t go viral at least once during her collegiate career, I will declare that there is no God. Yes, my entire theology boils down to this.)

I reached out to Das about speaking to me for the newsletter and she agreed to hop on the phone with me to discuss gymnastics, viral floor routines, and TikTok dances.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Well, not too much for length because, as you’ll see, it’s still quite long. I had a lot of fun talking to Das and I hope you’ll enjoy reading the conversation.

Dvora Meyers:  Before I started recording, you were talking about people that you look up to are now recognizing your work and how that feels.

BJ Das:  Yeah, it just kind of has validated that I'm on the right path. I question what I'm doing with my life honestly. Am I supposed to be a dancer? Am I supposed to be a choreographer? Am I supposed to be in the gymnastics world? So just to have the recognition that I've had, just even in the past couple weeks after a pretty rough year with the pandemic, is reassuring that I'm in my lane.

DM: Can you talk a little bit about your gymnastic career?

BD:  I was super inspired by the Olympics as most girls are.

DM: Which Olympics? Everyone has their Olympics that got them to do it. 

BD: The ‘92 and the ‘96. ‘96 was kind of the year for me. ‘92 I was pretty young and very new at gymnastics. ‘96 sealed the deal. I wanted to be an Olympian. They were my idols. I was obsessed with that Olympics.

DM: I wore out some VHS tapes on that Olympics.

BD: I started at age six and went up to level 10 in club. Leading up to college, I had a goal of going elite but I had a lot of surgeries along the way, and I kind of knew that that [going elite] was impossible. [Ed. note: Das mentioned chronic elbow issues and then a torn Achilles.] So then my next goal was to go do college gymnastics. I walked on to the University of Washington gymnastics team. I was cleared to do only beam my freshman year, so I trained beam but my favorite event, my best event, was always floor, because I love to dance, I love to tumble. So I finally got them to clear me for floor going into my sophomore year. And then I finally made the [floor] lineup and went to my first meet and then I tore my other Achilles. At that point, it was just kind of like my body was really not hanging on. The sport's so demanding and I just think I had been through enough already. And so I injury retired. I was done after that season. 

I always loved to dance. Even as a little kid, I was always making up routines with my friends to like TLC and Spice Girls. I was going to Britney Spears concerts and wanting to be like those dancers on stage. I wanted to try out for my school dance team, but because I was training 30 hours a week in gymnastics, I just never had the opportunity to even try dancing. I told myself if I ever couldn't do gymnastics, I wanted to try dancing. And so that moment came out of a really shitty circumstance. That was the one hope that I had coming out of that [injury]. 

My whole identity was gymnastics. I was pretty upset after that [injury], because I just didn't know what to do with myself. So that was the one thing that I could hang on to, at least now I'll have time to try dance. So I started taking dance classes, which turned into a really serious hobby for me. I wanted to learn all the styles and be in all the local dance groups in Seattle. I started performing and training really hard. I kind of carried that gymnast work ethic over into dance. I just wanted to be good at it. But I had years of catching up to do because, kind of like gymnastics, a lot of professional-level dancers start at a young age and go through the competition circuit and train all the technical styles. I was 20 when I really started seriously training in dance. And then I knew some fellow dancers that had moved to LA and were in music videos and Super Bowl shows and things like that. I was like, man, that'd be so cool if I could just move to LA just to try it. I didn't think I was good enough, but I committed to doing it when I graduated from college. I moved to LA and within the first year, I booked my first world tour with Avril Lavigne. I kind of took it [to mean], alright, I guess I'm where I'm supposed to be. It's kind of similar to what I was just saying about what’s been going on in the past couple weeks with Nia's routine. 

DM: I'm pretty sure that booking a world tour is a very strong sign, not a weak sign. 

BD: It's a strong sign, but as soon as I got off tour, it was back to the hustle. And it's this crazy realization of what dancers go through. I was working at Starbucks and then I stopped working at Starbucks and went on this world tour and was living a rockstar life. And then like, a month after I got back from like this world tour, I'm back at Starbucks at 4 a.m., making lattes.

DM: A few years ago, I interviewed Cirque du Soleil recruiters and trainers for a story about gymnasts moving into the circus arts after their athletic careers are over and they talked about having to teach the gymnasts, who already know how to compete, how to perform. Can you talk a little bit about how that transition was for you, from gymnast to dancer and performer?  

BD: It was definitely a transition. So there's a couple pretty bigger-name performing groups in Seattle. We weren't getting paid or anything, but we would do local shows. I was taking classes from the director of that group. He asked what my deal was or where I was from and I was like, I'm a gymnast. He was like, can you flip and so he ended up putting me in this Michael Jackson piece; he needed someone to do that Smooth Criminal flip. So I got thrown into the fire with a bunch of really talented dancers in the Seattle area, because I could do the Smooth Criminal flip. I went from taking drop-in classes to being in one of the best hip hop groups in Seattle because I could flip. That’s happened to me a lot in my life where I've been thrown into situations that I don't feel ready for, and I kind of just had to take it on. I didn't have time to be in my head about it or think about how I felt like an imposter, that I wasn't good enough. I just had to get the job done. I wanted to be good so I pushed myself. I've been in so many really uncomfortable situations in that way. That was the first time that I was with a bunch of amazing dancers. 

I definitely got a lot of notes on my gymnast hands and my shoulders being too stiff. I was taking private lessons because I had so many bad habits from my gymnastics dance, and I wanted to get rid of them. It took a lot of extra practice for me. 

DM: What are some of the gymnastics habits that are not helpful in dance that need to be addressed?

BD:  Having stiff shoulders and hips. A big one that I'm on a lot of the girls about is knowing when to bend their knees. In gymnastics, you are supposed to have straight [legs] and pointed toes through all your skills. But when it comes to dance, to be able to walk and groove with more ease you have to be able to bend your knees when they need to bend. And then just being aware of where your arms are while you're dancing. 

DM: I remember when I was learning top rock [in breaking], I completely forgot about the top half of my body for a while and then the b-boy who was teaching me was like, you need to pay attention to what you're doing with your arms. It's not just your feet.

Can you talk a little bit about your shift into choreography and also specifically choreography for gymnastics?

BD: I've always kind of choreographed. Since I was little, just casually like making up dances for fun. And then when I was in high school, my coach would sometimes send me to go work with other teammates on their choreography on floor and beam. Once in a while, I would get asked to choreograph high school gymnastics floor routines, and a couple like smaller college floor routines as well, just from former UW [University of Washington] teammates that were in the coaching field. 

As far as dance, I came out [to LA] in 2007 to become a professional dancer and I just kind of started building relationships over the years and got asked to choreograph a music video and built a relationship with the director. And then I got called to do a Super Bowl commercial with him. And he started bringing me on and I just started building more footage through my years in LA, enough to make a reel and pitch myself to other directors and producers. And so I started working more as a choreographer.  I had really taken a break from gymnastics minus the occasional high school floor routine. Then my teammate, Carly Dockendorf, a [former] UW gymnast, was working at Utah and she just was like, ‘Oh, it'd be cool if you could come coach camps, or maybe do a floor routine or two while you're here.’ So I came to Utah to do some summer camps and then I ended up doing some of the choreography, and they were like, ‘Well, it'd actually be better if you were our volunteer coach, which means you can have unlimited access to doing choreography with all the athletes like on campus.’ So, I ended up seeing firsthand how much college gymnastics had grown, especially big schools like that. Just seeing the crowds and the amount of fans and the attention that the sport is getting in this day and age, it's crazy. And it was just really fun to be a part of a big team, and to kind of almost redo my college career that ended with heartbreak; it was really upsetting the way that it all went down. It was almost healing to be back in the world that I once knew and was my entire life, and then to be brought back in a different role after all the years of dance and choreography experience in the industry. 

I realized I could use what I learned as a dancer and choreographer and apply it to gymnastics, instead of thinking of it as this separate thing. And that's kind of what I've been trying to do and have gotten more comfortable doing. I think for so long, I thought of it as separate. Like gymnastics dance, that's what you do in a floor and beam routine. And I think of dance, like commercial dancing, or you know, jazz or hip hop, or whatever it is...And coming to UCLA, I just realized they're open to anything and everything and they love to perform. And so I came in with the intention of kind of bringing my two worlds together.

DM: So speaking of going to UCLA, you took over choreography from Miss Val, who had a major impact on the choreography in college gymnastics, and also on performance expectations. Was it intimidating to step into that role? 

BD: Yes it was.

DM: I guess I asked a rhetorical question. 

BD: I knew I had big shoes to fill. I knew that it was going to be a really tough transition, for the athletes and for the program and for the fans. So I was well aware of the pressure of coming in after her. She really changed the game with choreography in gymnastics floor routines…She was very encouraging [of me]. I had a lot of people around me who were really supportive and encouraging and so it gave me a lot more confidence going into that role

I never really wanted to be the next Miss Val; that's just impossible, you know. And so I was like, Well, I do have a different background in dance and gymnastics than her. So I just want to make sure that I carry on that tradition of performance and bring the team what they need, year after year.

DM: How do you think your choreographic style or approach differs from Miss Val? And what's similar about it?

BD: I don't know cause I'm not an outsider looking in...I think we both celebrate uniqueness from athlete to athlete. And I think we encourage everyone to be different, whether that's hairstyle or character, or style of movement. I think the variety is really important to both of us. And then different is probably just the background that I have as a commercial dancer. I think my choreography is a little more like - I don't know if heavy is the right word. They're dancing a lot. Like I'm kind of asking some of them to do a lot of choreography in between their tumbling passes. 

DM:  In Nia’s routine, there was non-stop dance. So cardiovascular fitness has to be there. 

BD:  She's a rock star in that way. Her endurance is crazy. [I told Nia] you know, if anything's too much before your tumbling passes, let me know and we'll simplify. And she was like, ‘No, no, no, I got it.’ We never simplified anything. 

DM: How did Nia’s routine come about? What was the process behind it like? How did you get started? Did you have an idea? Did she have an idea? Was it a piece of music? Was it a particular move?

BD: It was a crazy year, right? Our season got cut short. Nia had to have shoulder surgery. There was a lot going on in the world. You know, stuff with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, and things like that really coming to light. And I think we kind of both wanted to talk about what to do this year for floor. 

I think she [Nia] was feeling a little bit of pressure of topping that Beyonce routine. She really liked that routine and connected with it. And so did I. So it was hard to kind of figure out what exactly we were going to do. And I think I just went in with the intention of like, after this pandemic, nothing's really guaranteed. And they [the gymnasts] don't know if they're going to make it to season. It’s really hard to be anyone during a pandemic, but especially difficult to be a college-age student who is still really finding their way. It was just a tough time for them and so I just wanted the floor routine to be something that was enjoyable for them, and that they connected to. If something's going to bring you joy in this time, I want it to be your floor routine.  

It started with a conversation about themes. And I think that [BLM] spoke to both of us. I went to a protest in Hollywood, one of the really big ones, and I was really moved by that experience. And she wasn't able to go to any of them because of her shoulder. So we kind of went from there. It kind of evolved because that topic is pretty heavy. And I think having to practice and compete day, in and day out, we wanted it to be more of a celebration, and it's her senior year. I think she just felt like there was a lot to celebrate. 

And then we started coming up with songs that spoke to both of us. I had a list on Spotify of like 85 songs, and we had to really narrow it down. It was a long process of picking the music and then cutting it. We didn't even get to choreography till November.

DM: Can you give me an example of a couple of songs that didn't make the final cut?

BJ:  My Power by Beyonce, This is America by Childish Gambino. [Das goes to consult her Spotify playlist.] Got To Be Real. 

We were trying to make a Rihanna song work and it just didn't quite work with the mix...Each one was kept in the mix for a reason. We ended with seven songs, which is a lot of songs for a minute and a half mix, but we made it work.

DM: I read in your interview in The New York Times that some of the moves were taken from TikTok, which I downloaded for one week of lockdown and then I decided that I was embarrassed for all the old people trying to learn the dances and I deleted it. [Ed. note: Also, I was afraid if I kept it on my phone for much longer, I’d become one of the elder millennials uploading dance videos.]

BD:  I have an account, but I've never done a TikTok [dance] and I don't go on it. I don't know how to TikTok; that is completely Nia's department, but I love that Monica song. I was jamming because that song's my generation. So I was like, ‘You know what? We're gonna do a TikTok [dance].’

DM: I just wanted to talk a little bit about the choreography because there is the TikTok dance as we mentioned, but there's stepping, there's c-walking, which I initially did not pick up on. It was my friend, who is a b-girl and house dancer, that I sent the video to, who picked up on it. She asked me, ‘Is Nia from LA? And I'm like, No, why do you ask? She's from Ohio.’ And my friend said, ‘Because she’s c-walking!’

You included different African American social dances in the routine. Can you talk about how those things came together? 

BD: It all started with the music. We [Nia and I] kind of struggled with if we wanted it to feel like a protest or like a celebration. And we were more on the celebration side of things, like celebrating Black music and Black culture and Black excellence. You can kind of see it in the routine. It kind of starts with a little bit of a protest vibe, and it evolved into these different aspects of Black culture, starting with the stepping, which is really close to her family. Her dad was in a fraternity and we FaceTimed [with] him when we were choreographing. I have a little experience with that just from industry jobs, but by no means was I in a sorority or fraternity where I learned the original dances. And so we ended up FaceTiming him and he put on his UCLA shirt, and he sent us these tutorial videos. And we're like, ‘Okay, we at least have an eight-count of this. This is dope.’ And so we ended up using some of her dad's original fraternity stepping choreography in the routine, which is fun to do.  

Then we kind of went into the TikTok vibe. And that's so much of who she is. She just dances all the time. And TikTok is just such a great way for this younger generation to be connected to dance even though some of the dances are really silly. It's just like bringing dance to a whole nother level with mainstream people. And then it goes into Soulja Boy, which is just a song that kind of hypes the team up and they all know the dance. I think it's funny that they know it because I'm like, of a different generation, and we were doing that when I first moved to LA. It was like one of the first viral dances to a hip hop song like that. And then from there, the Dougie and the Nae Nae and all these other dances started to happen.

After that song, we put a little Megan Thee Stallion/Boyz in the Hood sample...Then we were really struggling to figure out what that finale song should be. We were trying to play with different eras, and I looked on her phone screensaver and it was a picture of Tupac. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, we're in LA, what better way to like celebrate LA and she loves him.’ So I was like, ‘let's just try California Love.’ This feels perfect. It’s not something that would normally go into a floor routine...It almost doesn't feel easy to dance to, in a way. But there's such a hypeness about it when you hear that song come on.

DM: It doesn’t quite feel like a dance track. It has more of a “windows down, top down driving” kind of feel.

BD: Exactly what I felt. This is a car track.

DM: Going back to what you said earlier, about how the routine starts with protest and ends with celebration. I went to several protests this summer, and they are also, in many cases, celebrations. There was often live music and at times, people were dancing in addition to marching and chanting. It can happen in the same exact space. It makes perfect sense that you guys would put the two side by side. 

Can we talk about Margzetta Frazier because I’m a very big fan. I loved her freshman vogueing routine and also her disco routine from last year, which you choreographed. And I hear that there is a new one coming. 

BD: I love her on the floor as well. She's just a performer through and through. Like, she's a total triple threat. She can sing, she can dance, she can act. She's got a star quality about her.

DM: And perfect eyebrows!

BD: She lives for the stage, and so every floor routine, I think, really reflects that. I can't wait to see her new floor routine and I can't wait to see what she does next year. And then I also really just can't wait to see what she does after gymnastics, because she's extremely talented in so many ways. And she's really fun to create with. She doesn't take herself too seriously and she's really open to learning. She really wants to train and get it right. I've gone to a couple dance classes with her over the years, not during the pandemic, but before that, and she's just really hungry. She really wants to get good. And I can just see her going really far after gymnastics in anything entertainment. 

DM: I was really impressed with her freshman routine, which I know you didn’t choreograph. 

BD:  I know but I loved it. I loved that routine. I was like, that's the best routine inNCAA and I was like, why am I not at UCLA?...I need to be a part of this. They're vogueing without me, that's how I felt when I watched that. They're vogueing without me, I have to be a part of this team.

DM: I feel like Margzetta's was something we hadn't seen before in college gymnastics. I saw an interview with her on Bruin Banter where she talked about how she did all this research into ballroom culture. She really learned the history of a dance that came out of the Black LGBTQ+ community. I was really impressed by that.

BD: Margzetta is a student of life. It was the same with the Soul Train routine. I sent her all these videos of Soul Train and the lockers and some old old music videos from that era. She really takes that research seriously. And if you tell her to play a character, she's going to study up like she did that with the vogue routine.

DM: Which gymnast from the past would you want to choreograph a floor routine for?  

BD: I don't know if she needs any help in the choreography department but like me and Ariana Berlin could make some magic together. She's also a friend of mine and, fun fact: She also cut Margzetta's music for the Soul Train routine and the new one.

[Ed. note: Berlin, a former Bruin, had been also been a b-girl before joining the team and she brought a lot of that style to her UCLA floor routines. At one point, she even performed on floor exercise to the classic b-boy joint, “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch.]

I was a big Onnie Willis fan when I was younger. She's from the same region as me and then she went on to go to UCLA. I just thought she was the coolest ever. And so it would be a fangirl moment for me. 

The first 2021 competition at Pauley Pavilion also featured the unveiling of this season’s UCLA intro video, which was directed by Valentina Vee and Deanna Hong—here’s my 2020 Q&A with Hong about her work with UCLA—with Das providing the choreography and creative direction.

It’s a visually arresting video, made all the more impressive when you consider all of the challenges inherent in basically doing anything safely in the middle of a pandemic. (The gymnasts were shot individually due to COVID-19 restrictions.)

I hope to God that we get to see these gold leotards on the gymnasts in competition because I’m *slightly* obsessed with them. Yes, I am a person who owns a pair of gold colored Adidas, why do you ask?