Behind the scenes of UCLA’s viral floor routines

Fifth-year senior Margzetta Frazier stepped out onto the floor, took a deep breath, and struck her opening pose. She whispered, “You’ve got this,” to herself.

It was the last regular-season meet of her career as a UCLA Bruins gymnast, and most of the fans that packed Pauley Pavilion were on their feet. All eyes were on Frazier as she began a routine that had taken countless hours to perfect.

Since 1983, when Valorie Kondos Field was first hired as a choreographer and assistant coach, UCLA has been known for its show-stopping floor performances. Each routine is a mix of intricate choreography, carefully selected music, and, of course, impressive tumbling — matched exactly to the gymnast’s personality and strengths. The result: Routines that have captured unprecedented audiences in NCAA gymnastics.

Kondos Field became head coach in 1991 and led the Bruins to their first of seven national titles in 1997, but it wasn’t until social media was fully born that the team’s floor routines really got large-scale attention. In 2016, Sophina DeJesus became the first viral UCLA floor routine, receiving an estimated 40 million views online before she performed on “Ellen,” — which only increased the popularity of it:

A year later, Hallie Mossett’s Beyoncé-inspired floor routine garnered similar attention, and then in 2018, Katelyn Ohashi’s Michael Jackson routine became the hit of the year. But it was Ohashi’s 2019 routine that went off the charts. With its combination of unique, highly difficult tumbling and engaging choreography, it has received 235 million views (and counting):

When Kondos Field retired in 2019, Bijoya “BJ” Das became head choreographer — and carried on the Bruin legacy. Nia Dennis also appeared on “Ellen” thanks to the massive success of her Beyoncé-inspired “Homecoming” routine in 2020. And Frazier received a phone call from Janet Jackson after her 2021 routine featured music and dance moves from the artist.

This season, sophomore Jordan Chiles has seen her 1990s hip-hop routine (and explosive tumbling) win over the internet and even earn praise from Salt-N-Pepa.

While everyone associated with the team insists they never plan for a performance to go viral, they do know the program has a tradition like none other when it comes to floor routines. And they want to further push the envelope every year.

“When I’m putting these routines together, it really feels like I’m building a show, and all that entails,” Das told ESPN. “I don’t really think of it in terms of one athlete and what they’re going to do. I think of the big picture. I want variety and for everyone to have their own distinctive, memorable piece and be able to stand out on their own, while also building the [overall] show in an interesting way.”

Frazier has inadvertently been working on her current routine for more than two years. She fractured her foot during the first meet of last season and was never able to compete on floor. But she loved her routine so much, she and Das decided to rework it for 2023.

“During preseason, we said, ‘Let’s elevate it, let’s change it a little bit,'” said Das. “Marz is a true performer. She’s a creative mind, she’s very artistic and so I think doing something the exact same would be boring to her. Now it feels still new and fresh, but the music and the theme was just too fitting and perfect for her. It just brings her so much joy that we definitely wanted to do this routine still.”

Described by both as an “homage” and “gesture of admiration” to the voguing community and ballroom culture, the music includes Madonna’s “Vogue” (what else) and Britney Spears’ “Work B—-.”

Frazier hits each beat with poise — and a charisma that makes it impossible to look away. “If this routine doesn’t go viral, the whole internet should be canceled,” one YouTube commentator said as soon as it premiered at December’s “Meet the Bruins” intrasquad.

“BJ and I worked really hard on just making sure we had the right angles, right hand movements, that we hit all the right elements,” Frazier said. “And by no means am I a voguer, but it’s a style of dance that I love and it’s a community of people that I really do admire. I’m just fangirling in its ultimate form and doing a little tribute.”

The routine has garnered a 9.9 or higher seven times this season, and Frazier matched her career high of 9.95 on it on Feb. 11. There is so much going on in the choreography, that it’s easy to not notice she only has two tumbling passes, instead of the typical three. Frazier said the rationale for that decision was simple: “I’m old. Gymnastics is like dog years. I’m 23. I feel like I’ve earned the two passes.”

Das and Frazier have been working together since Das joined the coaching staff, and the two now have an inherent trust in one another. But that type of relationship often takes time to develop, and for some freshmen the idea of dancing, especially in front of large crowds, can be daunting. It’s usually very different from the floor routines the gymnasts have done in their club days, where dance and choreography are often emphasized less, and competitions have many fewer fans in the audience.

Das understands it well. She was a collegiate gymnast at Washington for two seasons before injuries ended her career. She went on to become a professional dancer and choreographer after graduation, performing with the likes of Beyoncé, Usher and Pink. Das returned to gymnastics in 2019 as the choreographer for Utah, before starting at UCLA the following year.

She aims to get members of the team comfortable with dancing from the very start of their time on campus.

“I try to get to know them as a person through preseason and what music they like, and we do studio days where I teach them a dance before practice,” Das said. “Those classes give me a sense right away of where someone is at — are they someone that gravitates to the back and they don’t pick up choreo or don’t move very full out at first? Or are they a freshman that walks in and they want to stand right up in the front immediately?”

Chae Campbell, now a junior, was very much the latter. According to Das, in one of their first meetings Campbell said she wanted to do a Beyoncé-inspired routine. Das knew she was capable, but didn’t feel the timing was right and came up with another strong, no-holds-barred, fan favorite routine that Campbell ended up winning a share of the Pac-12 title with her freshman year.

Since then, Campbell has only gotten better, earning two perfect scores on the event in 2022 and taking dance classes and attending conventions in her free time.

“She’s got an exceptional quality to the way that she moves that is so rare for a gymnast,” said Das.

Campbell has finally gotten the chance to do her Beyoncé routine this year, themed around the recently released “Renaissance” album. There were multiple attempts in creating the perfect medley of songs but finally they found something they both liked that felt cohesive.

“BJ always allows the freedom to let me groove and see what I do naturally,” said Campbell, “And then maybe she’ll tweak it a little bit to make it more choreography-based so I’m not just doing whatever. I think that’s what sets [UCLA] routines apart, you really get to see each person’s personality shine through.”

Campbell has scored a 9.9 or higher on every floor routine she has done this year, and is ranked 12th in the country on that event.

For gymnasts who might not be quite as comfortable as Campbell, Das tries to ease them in with something that she considers a “transition routine” from club to college. But with time, most of the gymnasts tend to buy in more, says Das, and want to push themselves.

Sophomore Emma Malabuyo, a five-time U.S. national team member and 2020 Olympic alternate, wanted to challenge herself following her freshman routine. Malabuyo went to Das and said, “Whatever you have, I’m ready for it.”

They got to work. Malabuyo had never been shy about her love for music from the 1980s and 1990s, and Das had been wanting to do a Paula Abdul-inspired routine for some time but had never figured out exactly who could pull it off. Das began sending Malabuyo videos of iconic Abdul music videos and performances, including the 1990 American Music Awards.

Malabuyo, who was born in 2002, didn’t know much about Abdul but was mesmerized by what she saw. From there, the two workshopped songs. Malabuyo immediately knew she had to have the intro from “Cold Hearted,” as well as the unmistakable synth beats from the song’s bridge — and she started trying to master the sharpness and precision of Abdul’s movements.

They spent months trying to perfect dance sequences. Some they instantly loved, and others they ultimately determined didn’t quite work for a solo performer or didn’t fit Malabuyo’s skill set. In her free time, Malabuyo would frequently wear her AirPods around her apartment, listening to the music and watching herself in the mirror to get it just right.

“I will be brushing my teeth sometimes with my airpods in and I’m like ‘Ooh, what if it’s like this?’,” Malabuyo said.

Malabuyo’s routine has been an instant success — debuting with a 9.9 score on Jan. 16 and matching her own career high of 9.95 on March 5.

“I’ve always enjoyed the jazz theatrical style and I would say that’s my strength,” Malabuyo said. “So we really brought that out of me for this routine. I think working on my facial expressions was something that took a little bit more time. But for me … I thought, ‘I know how to perform, I can do this.’ I’ve been watching Paula perform and the way she looks at people and she has this sort of glamor effect. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to do the same as her.'”

Das doesn’t expect the routines shown at the start of the competitive season to be the ones seen at the end. They are always works in progress, and she is constantly watching film from each meet in order to make improvements.

“It’s always evolving,” said Das. “Most people’s routines change, not necessarily drastically or anything, but they are different.”

Now under the leadership of former California assistant Janelle McDonald, UCLA placed second at Pac-12 championships on Saturday, and the team is currently ranked fourth overall nationally. Next up, the Bruins will serve as one of four hosts when NCAA regionals begin on Mar. 29, aiming for a top-two finish at regionals to advance to NCAA championships on April 13.

Perhaps most notably, the team is ranked No. 1 in the country on floor. The high standard, and tradition, is something that motivates many of the gymnasts, no matter what else is going on.

“All I think about is how I can be a better entertainer,” Frazier said. “I put on a show. I’m a performer. I fell in love with gymnastics because it’s a way that I can perform in front of hundreds of thousands of people, which is what I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl.”

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