15 Dec BJ Das Is Helping Bring Out the Best in the Bruins | Inside Gymnastics
“I was definitely that person, you know, being a former gymnast, of being very hard on myself and always down to put the work in, but not always letting myself just, like, go for it fully. They have the commitment to telling a story and the desire to perform. It’s really just bringing out the very best in these women and having them love it.”
BJ Das Is Helping Bring Out the Best in the Bruins
LA-based professional dancer turned choreographer and UCLA assistant gymnastics coach, BJ Das has seamlessly merged two worlds together to create the career she “never could have dreamed.”
By Christy Sandmaier
One moment with BJ Das is all you need to see how much she loves what she does. She exudes energy and passion and is incredibly driven to be the best. As a highly accomplished dancer and choreographer, BJ truly feels her art and lives and breathes it on the daily. From humble beginnings at a middle school dance to working with a “who’s who” in Hollywood, today she’s super inspired by the student athletes she coaches and the floor routines she choreographs for the seven-time National Champion UCLA Bruins. In Westwood, she’s rising to the occasion as a coaching star within a program known for their show-stopping floor routines, many of which have gone viral over several seasons. It’s a new era for UCLA gymnastics led by new head coach Janelle McDonald, and for BJ, quite the ride getting here. Tonight at Meet the Bruins, her work will be on full display and we’re so excited to see all of the new energy and new Bruin routines in the lead up to the 2023 season.
A Seattle native, BJ’s father was born and raised in India, and was an avid table player who exposed her to music, rhythm and culture at a young age. Growing up, she was a highly competitive gymnast, but honed her dance skills in her room when no one was watching (cue Spice Girls “Wannabe”). After an injury ended her college gymnastics career at the University of Washington, she ultimately moved to LA and dove head first into discovering a professional dance career, gradually stepping her way into choreography, and eventually working on everything from Super Bowl commercials to Netflix shows. In 2018, she served as a volunteer coach/choreographer for the Utah Red Rocks. And by the time the Bruins came calling, she’d made a name for herself in the entertainment industry with a super-stacked resume as an experienced dancer, and versatile TV and commercial choreographer.
Each year as the Bruins’ choreographer, BJ has created floor routines that have gone viral, including two from Nia Dennis that each amassed over 11 million views on Twitter alone. Jordan Chiles’ routine, which included Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” and “Rumors” (the latter featuring Cardi B), earned a retweet from Lizzo herself, and not only went viral, but also won silver in Liverpool in November.
Now entering her fourth season on UCLA’s coaching staff and her first as a full-time assistant coach after serving as the volunteer assistant coach from 2020-22, BJ says she’s ready for a season that’s celebratory. It’s her mindset as she creates each routine for each student athlete and is made even more exciting due to the ever-increasing popularity of NCAA women’s gymnastics. Career-wise this is also exactly where she wants to be.
“At the end of last year, I knew that I wasn’t done with this team,” she told us. “I knew that I had purpose here. I’d really grown to love everyone on the team, and I just felt like I had unfinished business. So I was so excited when Janelle gave me this opportunity! I wasn’t expecting it. I was kind of expecting to just stay in my volunteer assistant role. And then when she offered me this job, I’m like, ‘oh, my God.’ I just had no idea what to expect. But I was so heavily involved the past three years and just very invested in everything that it just feels like a natural progression to what I was already doing and more opportunities to learn and grow just in my own career, too.”
With trust and joy in the process, her purpose and passion is coaching others – whether you’re an actor, singer, dancer or gymnast – to thrive in movement and in life. In her role at UCLA, she’s expertly and it seems, seamlessly merged the intricacies and nuances of professional dance into the NCAA gymnastics arena (not an easy task!) and is keyed in on encouraging her athletes to connect with their choreography and perform for themselves, just as much or more than for the crowd. When that happens, the dance party and celebration that follows is emblematic of what UCLA gymnastics is all about and what BJ strives for every day.
“It’s been really exciting just to see what’s out there and be a part of the process that builds the program into the future,” she said of UCLA’s legacy and the differences in her position now compared to her volunteer role in previous seasons. “It’s a bigger workload in that I’m trying to carry some of the traditions of the past and bring it into this new era and this new staff and everyone else new to UCLA. I feel like I have to bridge the gap of the old and the new and make sure that we’re always staying really true and authentic to the culture of the program that’s been built up – just all the great alumni that have come before us. I feel a little bit more pressure in that way of helping to facilitate and carry on a legacy. It’s nonstop this time of year. We’re in a grind, and now I’m getting to take a little more ownership of coaching. I have a great team of coaches around me, too, and so it’s been fun to come up with training plans and really personalize things for the girls.”
Part of that plan is ensuring the student athletes are held accountable to a high level of performance but also to empower them to reach their goals and their own potential.
“Sometimes they don’t realize how good they are and how much potential they have because they’re so in their own way,” BJ said when reflecting on her own journey and what she uniquely can bring to the table as a coach and choreographer because of her background in high-level gymnastics and professional dance. “I was definitely that person, you know, being a former gymnast, of being very hard on myself and always down to put the work in, but not always letting myself just, like, go for it fully. They have the commitment to telling a story and the desire to perform. It’s really just bringing out the very best in these women and having them love it.”
Here’s more of our chat with BJ! See the December 2022 issue of our sister publication, Inside Dance for more on her dance career and journey to Westwood.
Where do you draw your inspiration and generate your choreographic ideas each season?
It starts with the athlete that I’m working with. I view it as if I was a director and I’m casting a role. [I ask myself], ‘What’s something that they have and then how can I mold that into a character or story? What music might fit the style of movement that they naturally do or a personality trait that they have? What’s a song that reminds me of them or that I could visualize bringing to life?’ Sometimes I draw inspiration from pop culture and from the dance world and the dance industry. I like to go wherever the ideas are. And even if it’s something really silly and off, I’m like, ‘cool, let’s just try it!’ I want them to be a part of the process.
UCLA gymnastics has a very strong tradition, and one of those traditions has become floor routines that go viral! Do you feel pressure to keep that bar raised?
No, I think the pressure of routines going viral is a byproduct of a routine that appeals to the masses. I don’t ever choreograph from a place of that being the intent. And maybe I’m a little old school in the way that I view quality choreography, but I don’t ever want that to be the intent. I just want to create something that the athletes and the audience like. If a bunch of people enjoy it and click on it and watch and view and love it, then great! That’s like a nice byproduct of it that can feel very validating. But it’s not all that matters because there’s a lot of really artistic routines out there, either on our team or other teams that don’t get that same public recognition from people outside the gymnastics community.
I do feel pressure to keep up a certain quality of choreography, and sometimes it feels really hard to top a routine I did that people really loved or that I really loved, and then, okay, now what’s going to be the theme this year, and how is this athlete going to top what they did the year before?
What does ‘artistic’ mean for you when you’re creating a routine?
Artistry to me is someone moving freely, and expressing themselves in a way that I think looks interesting or beautiful or that is captivating. My view of what I think is artistic could be different from someone else’s. It’s finding ways to not just stick with a traditional type of movement that’s expected, and to try to bring something new and innovative and interesting especially to gymnastics, and in general, to whatever movement or story you’re telling with your body.
When you start your choreographic process, what are the first steps you take with an athlete to map out a routine?
I usually put the song on and freestyle. I’ll just come into the gym and freestyle and play around and listen to the whole mix and get a big picture of where I could see tumbling happen versus leap passes and then what parts of the song stick out to me as being really fun to dance to or choreograph to. So, I’ll freestyle and some of the girls will freestyle with me, and they’ll do their own thing, too, and we just kind of play around. Sometimes the music just tells us what to do, and other times we have to dig a little and find a character or some sort of inspiration from that song. It always varies.
When you have a student athlete coming from the Elite gymnastics world where they’re not always encouraged or able to express themselves as much at first, how do you work to encourage them to move out of their comfort zone?
We have athletes that are somewhat shy, but they come to UCLA knowing they’re going to get pushed out of their comfort zone and something in them wants that and that’s what draws them to our program. I do something we call Studio Mondays, but it’s really any day of the week – we’ll do studio days and I’ll just teach them a little mini dance class at the beginning of the day just to start practice. I’ll teach them a real combination, taught very much like a dance teacher, in eight counts. And I’ll do a warm up with grooves and stretching, you know, structured exactly like a dance class. And then they learn a combo and then they have this combo that they know and anytime they’re in the middle of practice and that song comes on, they all do the dance. One way I get them out of their shells from day one is we just all dance together and we buy into that. For some people, I have to give them a little more direction with how the movement is motivated.
Talk about the learning curve you had transitioning from gymnastics to dance…
There was this little part of me that always loved to dance… I was this four foot tall seventh grader at a middle school dance, and kind of shy, and they’re playing R&B, and Hip Hop and I got on the dance floor and it just took over… And I really found joy and happiness again after gymnastics by taking dance classes. I quickly went from one hyper focus to another and I was like, ‘I’m a dancer now.’ I had so much catching up to do because I was dancing and taking class with people that were amazing and had been doing studio training since they were 3 years-old! I started taking private lessons. I would clean the studio so I could take free classes. I would take class all the time. I auditioned for every local group in Seattle, like the Hip Hop groups, and do these local shows. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the community dancer rehearsals, like, in a parking lot – I was all about that life, so I was putting myself in everything just because it was so much fun and it was such a new found passion for me that it just reignited my spirit in a lot of ways.
What tools from your own career as a dancer have you found useful coaching NCAA gymnastics?
After years of being a dancer and having really great teachers that have taught me and explained movement, and the texture and quality behind it, I think I’m better able to articulate that. I’m pretty notorious for following people around the floor if they’re not delivering performance. I hold them very accountable to a high standard even doing their dance-throughs on any random practice day. They’re not really able to get away with going through the motions or being offbeat, because I know every single count in their choreography! Whereas if I was just a choreographer that came in, set the piece and left, then they might be able to let it get loose or not perform it as much, but they have to practice pretty full out every day. And the team really helps with that, too, because they all get into it! Even just in practice, they’re cheering or making comments or doing it with them. So that helps them also to stay really accountable to holding up the quality of the choreography.
You talked about pushing student athletes out of their comfort zone. Are there teachers or choreographers who created a space like that for you?
As a dancer, I started from ground zero, and there were people that were so good, and so just naturally, I put myself in the mix with them. Just me showing up and going into a freestyle circle at an audition because I’m not going to sit back. I had gymnast hands and my shoulders were stiff, so I had to really unlearn a lot of habits. But at the same time, I was given opportunities to train with really great teachers and dancers because I could do flips. They would put me in a piece with a group that was very well-known, even locally, or going on to be working dancers in LA – I would get put in the mix with them because I could do this cool flip, and then they’d teach me the rest of the dance. They saw some form of talent. I just needed a little refining. I was really self-motivated to take a lot of class and learn and just be among great dancers. I learned a lot from observing people and especially once I moved to LA, I had peers that were dancing for Beyonce, and So You Think You Can Dance and all these things. I’m hoping that I still stay really connected to that side of me because I think it helps balance me and then it also helps me in my role as a choreographer.
So full circle, for aspiring dancers, choreographers, those who’ve just moved to LA to pursue their own careers, what advice do you have?
My biggest advice is to be yourself, and never stray away from that. My first couple of years as a dancer, I would see these other dancers booking certain jobs, and they look this way and that way. It wasn’t until I started understanding that not every audition is meant to be the job that I booked, but if I’m the best me I can possibly be and that best version of myself, there’s going to be something out there for me. It’s really hard to be a second rate version of someone else. That’s something that I always hope that new dancers can learn quicker than I did. Because it’s really tough to be out there in the industry and play the comparison game and wish you had someone else’s life and career. There’s just so many different ways to have a fulfilling career and pursue your passion. If people are open to just paving their own way, they’re going to find more joy and fulfillment.
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Photos courtesy of UCLA Athletics
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