Sophina DeJesus has enjoyed a decade’s worth of success as a hip-hop dancer and competitive gymnast, but it took a viral video of her February 6 floor routine to light up the Internet and place her in the public eye. Now pondering her next moves, DeJesus shares her thoughts and aspirations in this IG Online interview.
DeJesus is in the last season of her collegiate gymnastics career at UCLA, but mass interest in her trendy performance style has rekindled her passion for dance and acting.
As a child, DeJesus excelled in hip-hop dance, where in 2006 her talents earned her a role on Discovery Kids’ “Hip Hop Harry,” a part in Debbie Allen’s musical play “The Bayou Legend,” and performances with her dance crew on “Ellen” and other television shows.
DeJesus, who as a junior gymnast was featured in a profile in the April 2010 issue of International Gymnast magazine, placed 14th all-around at the 2008 U.S. junior championships and ninth in 2009. She finished fourth all-around and first on floor exercise at the 2009 Japan Junior Invitational. Although the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) approved her to represent Puerto Rico in 2013, she has yet to pursue that option.
Since DeJesus’s floor routine in the February 6 meet against the University of Utah made her an Internet sensation, she has been the subject of numerous feature articles, and segments on news and entertainment shows, including the February 17 episode of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."
IG caught up with DeJesus, who discusses her recent fame, her lifelong passion for performing and the new opportunities she hopes to pursue.
IG: What was your reaction to the different stages of your performance against Utah, starting with the actual routine, continuing with the online views and finishing with all the media attention you’ve gotten?
SDJ: It was my first time competing that routine, so I was just excited to finally go out and do it, and then my day was kind of normal after that. The next day I woke up and my mom called and I asked her, “How are you doing?” And she said, “Honey, do you know you have like five million views on your floor routine?” I didn’t even know it was posted anywhere, and I thought that maybe she was just being nice because she’s my mother, and all moms are biased towards their children. So I was like, “OK, thanks, Mom. I’ll talk to you later.” Then my coach (Valorie Kondos Field) called me and said the same thing, so I thought, OK, then this has to be real. This is unbelievable. I was just super excited, and I was on this high-excitement roller-coaster.
IG: How have you coped with the expectations since then?
SDJ: We had a meet on February 13 (against Oregon State University), and I had thoughts like, Oh my gosh, what if I don’t live up to the expectations of all this excitement? I was up on bars, and those thoughts were going through my head. Bars is one of my best events, and I went up and face-planted my mount. That never happens. I think that, if I wouldn’t have thought of any of those things, I would have done better. After that, I recuperated and did the best beam routine I’ve ever done, and got a 9.975, so that was an amazing feeling. After that I have been soaking it up and accepting it all, and being excited with all the support from fans and my family and my team. It’s all been amazing.
IG: How are you managing to squeeze all of the interview requests and other demands on your time, logistically and emotionally?
SDJ: I’m taking it one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, and enjoying every moment of it, because this doesn’t happen normally. I’m really blessed that this is happening, and I’m so happy that I’m getting any of these opportunities to talk to you, to be on the Ellen show and all of that awesome stuff.
IG: What do you think made your performance, and the routine itself, special enough to blow up as it has?
SDJ: All the routines that people do are amazing, and our team is known for doing really fun, crowd-pleasing routines. I think that mine was really pleasing to the whole population, because it was more of a worldwide dance that everyone could dance along with.
IG: How did you work several dance moves and styles into one floor routine that would be cohesive?
SDJ: I thought about it over the summer. I didn’t expect to put all of those dance moves in there. I thought of two. The two main ones I wanted to put in were the Whip and the Nae Nae. So I listened to music, and one of the pieces of music in my floor routine is one of the Whip and Nae Nae songs. So I thought those were perfect because they already kind of went into it. As I continued I accidentally stumbled upon the dab, because I ended my routine in a different way, and Miss Val (Kondos Field) said, 'You should change your ending.' And I said, 'OK, sounds cool.' I was talking to one of my teammates and asked, 'How funny would it be if I dabbed at the end?' They said, 'Try it.' I did, and they said, 'Yes, you have to keep it in!' When I was listening to my music, I was thinking about the Quan. At the end of my routine the music gets really fast, and I thought then would be a perfect place to put it in.
IG: How much has the impact and attention contributed to your interest in resuming your dancing and acting career?
SDJ: It came at the perfect time because I’m graduating, and it’s a great stepping stone to continuing to do things I love.
IG: What is your plan for getting out there professionally after the season?
SDJ: I haven’t had much time yet, because I’m in school and in season, and trying to graduate, so I think next quarter I will try. Because of NCAA rules I can’t really do any of those things (for money), but once I’m done with college gymnastics I will try to ramp it up and get an agent and keep it going from there.
IG: Even though you are in your last season for UCLA, and based on recent interest in your gymnastics, what kind of thoughts are you giving to a shot at international competition for Puerto Rico?
SDJ: I feel that would be an amazing opportunity, even it they don’t need me on their team per se. On my bucket list is to go to Puerto Rico, so even just to go there and be supportive or on the team or not, I think that would be an amazing opportunity. So I don’t want to close any doors.
IG: What are some of the most amusing or flattering comments you’ve read or received since your routine went viral?
SDJ: [Laughs] My marriage proposals and prom invitations on Twitter and places like that have been great, and when I went on the Ellen show, I met tWitch (dancer/actor Stephen “tWitch” Boss), and that was amazing. He said, 'You’re so awesome.' I was like, 'Oh my gosh, he just called me awesome. No, he’s awesome!' And then I recently found out that Chris Brown posted my video, and he was like, 'Work it, Sophina!' I am in awe, and bouncing off the walls right now!
IG: Although collegiate gymnastics seems to be more flexible in terms of choreography, how much further do you thing gymnastics rules in general could go, in terms of expression and creativity?
SDJ: In general, gymnastics is already a very subjective sport, so that would be a subjective thing, as well. In college gymnastics it’s about how much the crowd loves it, and that’s kind of what we do it for. In Elite (international) gymnastics it’s more about the judges, the critical, the technique and things like that. I think it could go a long way and people could have more fun doing it in Elite gymnastics, but also it would be a little difficult, because you’d have to do more tumbling passes and get in more things. So it’s a possibility, and you can have more fun and put your personality into it, but it’s really subjective, either way.
IG: What guidelines would you suggest to other gymnasts regarding expression?
SDJ: I feel that, if the judges see you’re having fun, they will tend to give you more points, if that makes sense. Because, if you make it look hard and not as fun, it’s not as pleasing to watch. Also, for me, my routine is my personality. If you put your personality into it and do “you,” it will reflect in your score. You don’t have to be a hip-hop dancer. It’s still subjective as to how you want to express it, but as long as you’re yourself and you show it in your routine, nothing can go wrong.
IG: What advice can you offer to young gymnasts who might not feel they have the potential to be as expressive as other gymnasts?
SDJ: My advice would be to, first of all, have fun. If you’re having fun, it will show. You have to be yourself. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not going to do as well as you want to do anyway. Go out and do your best. As long as you’ve worked hard and do your best, it will show and you will get good scores. I don’t think anyone should ever change who they are or what their personality is, just because of what they think others will think of them.