Jordan Chiles let out a joyous shriek as she nailed her final tumbling pass then hit her ending pose. The crowd at Pauley Pavilion roared, and Chiles barely saluted the judges before her teammates mobbed her, all shouting for a 10.
The atmosphere at the early February matchup was electric as UCLA faced its Pac-12 rival Utah, and neither team disappointed. The Bruins closed out the meet on floor exercise with back-to-back routines from Chiles, a freshman, and sophomore Chae Campbell. The Utes came away with a nail-biting victory, 197.750 to 197.650.
UCLA has become known for eye-catching floor routines. From Sophina DeJesus incorporating the whip and nae nae in 2016 to Katelyn Ohashi’s iconic Michael Jackson (’18) and Beyoncé/Tina Turner mashup (’19) performances to Nia Dennis’s “Black Excellence” routine last season, there is an expectation that the Bruins will continue to push the boundaries.
Campbell and Chiles helped UCLA to a fourth-place finish at the Pac-12 championships behind Utah, California and Oregon State. The Bruins will face No. 3 Michigan, Maryland and the winner of the Townson–North Carolina play-in meet March 31 in the second session of the Raleigh regional. No. 6 LSU, No. 11 Missouri, Iowa and NC State will battle it out in the first session of Thursday’s competition. The top-two teams from each session will advance to the regional final April 2. From there, the two highest-scoring squads will advance to the NCAA championships.
Chiles spent her fall touring with Simone Biles’s Gold Over America Tour and joined the Bruins squad in December, just a month before the season started. The Utah meet marked just the second time Chiles appeared in the floor lineup. The 20-year-old pairs her difficult, high-flying tumbling with precise landings and sharp dance to create a stunning routine that earned the Olympic silver medalist her first career 10.0.
She learned her floor routine, which includes music from her favorite artist Normani, in just two days. UCLA volunteer choreographer BJ Das, who got to know Chiles while working on the GOAT Tour, marveled at how quickly the routine came together.
“We had a lot of pressure because we were in a time crunch, and we both dove in headfirst,” Das says. “We were like, Yeah do that. O.K. try this. Now do this, all right, that. Ideas were flowing. We did that routine in like, two short sessions, like two days.”
Campbell was drawn to UCLA on floor before she joined the squad in 2020. Now a sophomore, she remembers focusing on the Bruins’ performance quality and the little details that made each routine stand out, including eye contact, which is something she and her teammates practice day in and day out in the gym.
This season, Campbell’s routine has a “dance hall theme, which is very authentic to the dance industry and their style.” It took some time to find the right cuts of music to make it cohesive for an audience. The choreography, Das says, is “very detailed and catered to [Campbell].” In a home meet against Washington in late February, the sophomore added a more difficult opening tumbling pass—a full-twisting double-tuck—to fit the music and picked up a 10.0 of her own.
She credits Das for UCLA’s ability to push the boundaries of what a floor routine can look like. The poses aren’t the “typical poses you see a lot in elite,” and each exercise is created for the individual athlete. UCLA can have a lineup ranging from the dramatic elegance of Brooklyn Moors to the boundless, hyped energy of Sekai Wright.
Das arrived in Westwood before the 2020 season after a yearlong stint as a volunteer choreographer with Utah. Former UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field announced her retirement before the ’19 season, leaving a hole on the choreography side for the Bruins. Das already lived in Los Angeles and had attended UCLA meets, where some alumni encouraged Das to give it a shot. For Das, the decision became easier after watching the types of routines UCLA showcased in previous seasons.
“I’m like, Oh, man, this girl’s doing a Beyoncé routine. Where was this when I was a gymnast?” Das says. “Someone’s doing Michael Jackson. Wait a sec, they’re doing this without me. This is like my dream; how is this happening?”
Her process differs from athlete to athlete but nearly always begins with the music. She stresses authenticity and finding a style or theme that excites the athlete she’s working with. From there, Das builds playlists of songs that could potentially be part of a floor routine. (Nia Dennis, whose senior year routine went viral in 2021, estimates that she had a list of about 80 songs to pick from.) The music can present its own challenge, though. Floor routines aren’t allowed to have any lyrics and finding the right instrumental versions can be tricky.
“A lot of songs sound more powerful or interesting with lyrics,” Das says, “so it’s a challenge in itself to find music that can tell a story or be exciting to perform to without those lyrics. That’s sometimes where we get stuck even in the beginning.”
Once the music choices are selected, Das listens to it constantly—in the car, at home, “whenever I’m not busy.” If she isn’t able to find the instrumentals herself, she doesn’t back away from reaching out to artists on social media, record labels, managers or even those she knows, such as Janet Jackson’s choreographer. Then, she either cuts the music herself or has a friend in the music industry mix it for her. Once that’s all settled, it’s finally time to start putting together the choreography.
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Das’s background began in gymnastics. She competed as a Level 10 club gymnast and then collegiately at Washington before injuries ended her career. But Das found a silver lining. She shifted her focus to dance and began taking classes and private lessons. After spending most of her life as a gymnast, she “took that gymnastics work ethic and applied it to dance.”
She moved to L.A. about a year after graduating, signed with an agency and started using her gymnastics skills for work. Das found herself up against dancers who started perfecting their craft from a young age, similar to most gymnasts. Her gymnastics background gave her “a leg up in the industry” as she caught up. Some of her earliest jobs included dancing on Avril Lavigne’s world tour in 2008 and for Miley Cyrus at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards. She’s performed at the Academy Awards (’14), American Music Awards (’18) and the Grammys (’19). She even dipped her toes in the water by choreographing some floor routines for local clubs back home in Seattle as a side gig. Das didn’t intend to focus on that as a career until she got a call from a friend who worked with Utah’s team and saw how the sport had evolved to incorporate dance into routines.
The third-year volunteer coach avoids putting pressure on the first session she has with any of the athletes. She wants them to enjoy the creative process and encourages them to bring friends or teammates with them. Then they dance. Routines aren’t necessarily linear, Das says. Sometimes, a particular part of the music sticks out and that becomes a starting point.
“It’s different for everyone, but I think the main theme is that I want it to be collaborative,” Das says. “I want it to be authentic, and I want it to be playful and fun when they’re creating with me.”
Nia Dennis knows what it’s like to have a viral floor routine. She’s done it in back-to-back seasons. As a junior, her Beyoncé routine took the internet by storm, and last season’s meaningful “Black Excellence” routine garnered 3.6 million views. Dennis started with her theme, Black culture, and focused on what represented her as a woman.
“I wanted to bring [Black culture] to the sport of gymnastics, which isn’t so common,” Dennis says. “It’s not common to see Black culture in the sport of gymnastics. That’s music style, dance style, and gymnastics style even isn’t so common. I wanted to bring more of it to the sport of gymnastics.”
Dennis and Das worked together to create the choreography, a process that Dennis says was the “complete opposite” of what she experienced as an elite gymnast. But it was a welcome change. Dennis loves to dance, and Das gave her the freedom to give her own ideas and input into the routine.
“It was just so much fun, honestly,” she says. “It didn’t feel like a chore; it didn’t feel like I was preparing for season. It felt like I’m learning the best dance routine of all time.”
From there, Dennis worked with the coaching staff to figure out her tumbling passes. NCAA teams compete weekend after weekend between January and March with the postseason meets continuing into April. The long season means focusing on tumbling skills that are consistent from week to week while also managing any nagging injuries that crop up.
Dennis struggled early in her career with running out of bounds on her first pass and worked through three different skills before settling on one that worked best for her. Coming into her final season last year, she knew that she wanted to keep her second and third tumbling runs the same as her junior-year routine with some wiggle room to upgrade her opening pass on any given week.
Das prefers to work through several shorter choreography sessions before the fine tuning begins. UCLA does a preseason event called Meet the Bruins, which is often televised. It gives Das a chance to watch every routine and see how it looks on camera. She takes her combined experience of dancing on tours and award shows with choreographing for television and uses it to continue to refine each routine.
Movements that might look too small are adjusted, and that comes from Das dancing on tours or at awards shows in which it’s important for those sitting far away to still see every move. Likewise, if there’s just something that “looks weird on camera” that Das didn’t recognize in person, she’ll tweak that as well. Even once the season begins, Das will sometimes make small changes just to keep things interesting for the athlete competing.
The first thing fans can always expect at a home meet is the dance party vibe that takes over the arena as UCLA moves to its final rotation. The Bruins thrive most when they’re loose. As each gymnast steps up to compete, what’s happening around the floor draws eyes almost as much as the routine on the floor. Teammates are spread around the mat, cheering every tumbling pass and doing the choreography with the athlete on the floor. Even Das gets involved. Learning one another’s routines is something that both Campbell and Dennis say takes absolutely no time at all during preseason.
Elsewhere in the arena, the UCLA student section, known as The Den, is on its feet. The students interact with the gymnast on the floor and even, according to Dennis, send a couple of people to practice to watch and learn the choreography. That support is invaluable to the athletes competing.
“They’ll learn certain parts of our floor routines so that when we go to the meets they’ll know when to do it with us, and they can come in with us,” Dennis says. “We have this extended team that goes all the way up Pauley. If you’re ever nervous while you’re performing and then you look up and see the student section doing it with you, that just makes you not nervous.”
In a lineup brimming with options, Chiles and Campbell stand out as routines with the potential to grab attention. Like their teammates, they are absolutely committed to their performance and match great choreography with breathtaking tumbling. Both athletes have picked up perfect 10s this season inside of Pauley Pavilion, including a run of three straight meets between Feb. 27 and March 12. The Bruins cracked a 197.000 team score in each of those competitions.
Chiles described that moment as “aweing” for the freshman. Campbell has anchored the floor lineup in all but two meets this season and said after the Washington meet that before her routine she asked herself, Why not get a 10 today?
But both were quick to say that their routines weren’t created with the intention of going viral. Chiles wanted her routine to be fun, representative of her and “something that little kids would be able to dance to.”
Campbell agrees. “There’s really no formula for a viral routine,” she says. “There really isn’t. I think it just comes down to a person and how they take what they’re given and how they perform it.”
Das credits those who came before her at UCLA, ranging from the former coach Kondos Field, to gymnasts such as Ohashi, DeJesus and Hallie Mosset. She looks back to Oregon State’s Tasha Smith and to ex-LSU superstar Lloimincia Hall, whose routines broke through for being innovative and different.
“There’s so many people who set us up for success that did these popular routines at the right time when social media was looking for something to shake things up in the sport,” Das says. “It’s so unexpected. People are expecting a poised, perfect gymnast to point their toes and have balletic kind of poses and violin music, and then someone latches on to that on the internet and sees this cool music and popular moves and they’re like, Wait a second. It’s something exciting and almost rebellious about it. I think that that started to pave the way.”