Alex and Casey are two individuals that I met during my time at Stony Brook University within PUSO (Philippine United Student Organization). Alex served as the co-directress of PUSO Modern while Casey is a member of the team and was the event coordinator of PUSO. Both are in an all female dance team called MOXIE. They inspire me immensely to continue growing in the dance community and to become more confident in myself. In this feature, we talk about how their love for dance ties in with feminism and confidence.
STEPH: What is it about the dance community that makes you so drawn to it?
ALEX: I think it’s really empowering to be a woman in the dance community, especially if you think about the type of dancing that you do. When you go to class, you don’t really know what kind of piece you’re going to learn. Somehow the teacher is going to say, “Today we’re doing sexy.” What I find really empowering and equal in our community is that you don’t see the guys in class go, “I’m not doing that" or, “I’m not going to try that.” You really see them push. You see them put their own styles as well as the ladies that push themselves even harder because they know that they can succeed in this kind of thing.
CASEY: Personally being in MOXIE, it’s just about having fun. I see it through them especially as expression through movement. When I’m on stage with them, we’re killing it. Girls can kill it too. It’s not just guy groups and male teachers. There are female groups and teachers that are monsters. Same goes for dancing with PUSO Modern. Yeah, you want to win a trophy, that’s cool. But at the end of the day, you want to give that message and that performance. And our message is, “We’re doing what we love with the people we love and that’s our family."
"Dance is really empowering because it allowed me to accept myself." - Alex Leonardo
STEPH: Do you think before you joined PUSO/Modern you didn’t have this persona of being confident? You said it was gradual, but do you think you were a different person before that or you were always raised with this strong mentality?
ALEX: In this society when a lot of Filipino moms are nurses, they make bank. They make much more than the male. At the same time, they make money but they also take care of the kids and the home. They have so much power. So I was brought up to be a strong woman and have that mentality. To be honest, I still suffer with not being completely confident, but I’m good at understanding where I’m insecure and how to fix that.
I was definitely not the type of person in high school to go into the center of a circle to talk or to have my picture taken. It was probably in me the whole time, but Modern definitely pushed me to be that type of person now. It feels so good when a person comes up to me and says, “You seem so confident and you’re really inspiring me to become confident.” At first I’m like, “Oh my gosh thank you!” (laughs) But at the same time, I do have to tell them I wasn’t always like this. I’m still not like this. But I have learned to appreciate myself. I think it’s not being confident in yourself, but knowing how to love yourself, which is definitely a gradual and a continuous process.
CASEY: In regards to respecting women, I feel that I was raised with it because of my mom and my grandma. I feel that respect for women was a given in our house. That also played a part in me learning to respect myself. Personality wise, it was definitely something I had to grow into. I realize now even in high school and lately, that I have been spreading myself too thin at the expense of others. So it’s good to respect myself. If I can’t respect myself, am I going to get anything done? I’m going to be miserable. Realizing that now, I do feel empowered and I feel like I’m a woman who can push forward and just do what I want. I feel like I care less about what people think of me now, because image was a big thing for me in high school. But I really don’t care anymore! (laughs)
"If I really thought about what every single person thought about me, I wouldn’t be living. I’d always be living for other people. Find yourself a good group of friends that care about your insides." - Casey Santiago
STEPH: What about a problem you want to address not through dance? Just as a woman.
ALEX: I have a strong detest of cat calling. It’s crazy to understand what the mindset of these people are. At first you think it’s your fault as a victim. You think, “Oh maybe my shirt was too tight or too low that day.” Or, I can say that I’m asking for it. So that’s what happened to me the first time I got cat called. Then it happened so much to the point that I thought about everything I wore. One day I was wearing leggings and a jacket. The next day I was wearing jeans. I get it, I wear short shorts sometimes and I wear baggy shirts and it looks like I’m not wearing any pants. But at the same time, no man -- no one has the right to make you feel uncomfortable, scared, or threatened just because of what you wear. You shouldn’t be judged with the way you were born with what hips or boobs you have or what kind of clothes you like to wear.
I don’t understand how men will be like, “Oh it’s a compliment.” But there’s a time and a place. When you chase me and when you keep on asking for a response, then that’s not right. I am a person that likes to show my body with my own consent and for myself. I don’t do it for anyone else. So when a man says that to me and thinks that I’m doing it for them, they’re in the wrong.
CASEY: The problem that I have is that people still care about image and keeping that up. You see a businesswoman on the street and it’s sad to think about this, but there are people who just think, "She’s a piece of meat, oh she’s asking for it". I remember one time I was on the train and I wasn’t even wearing anything crazy. It was an off the shoulder top and khakis. This guy was following me as I got off the train and he got close to my face and I asked him, “Can I help you?” I should be able to wear what I want without being harassed. It’s not even just about what I wear because there are some people that still see being a woman as a weakness.
"I love leading by example. I had to show myself as a strong woman to make others stronger and make others confident." - Alex Leonardo
STEPH: What are some ideals that you've learned and showed through your experience as the co-directress of PUSO Modern?
ALEX: I’m really strong about having the right to show your body the way you want to. I know some people not in the community, boyfriends. They’ll see their girlfriends dance sexy and they’ll go, “You’re acting like a slut, why are you showing your body like this?” But to me that’s completely wrong. To me it’s courageous to put your body out there in the way you want to. Like, I am spreading my legs, and doing a split and twerking because I am allowing myself to do it. No one is making me do it. And I’m not doing it to show you because I want to have sex with you, I’m not doing it so you can fantasize; I’m doing it for myself. And that mindset really changed for me when I became a director. Cause if I have that mindset, that I want girls and the guys to have that mindset too.
I'm also trying to be more understanding about the way I view other girls. Instead of thinking, "Oh crap she's so skinny. What is she doing with her life?" I'm like, "She was probably born with it and has her own self esteem issues." Maybe when she's looking at me in the mirror she thinks, "Wow, I wish I had hips.” I might still have those thoughts, but I know where they come from and where they’re rooted in. I think I had that epiphany through dance, because of this one time I learned two pieces on the same day. I was thinking to myself in the first piece, “There is so much jumping and my boobs are so big." Then I looked at the girl standing next to me and I was like, “Damn. She’s skinny.” For the next piece, when you do buck choreos, it’s good to look thicker and stronger. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “I’m too skinny for this piece.” And then I had this realization where I was like, “What the hell? I wanted to look skinnier before and now I’m too skinny? I should just be happy with what I have.”
"As a Feminist, you shouldn’t just support the cause just because you have dealt with it. You have to understand the problems of other women, and take it to yourself." - Alex Leonardo
STEPH: Was there ever a time where you challenged yourself to express your femininity through dance?
CASEY: My first class outside of SBU ever was 2sdays Frogshops. The choreographer, Youran, did a song called Lay it Down. She explained: “Look. The song is called Lay it Down. You’re trying to get with someone; you brought them to your apartment, now what are you going to do?” (laughs) and then she showed it. It wasn’t just her face conveying a message, it was also about the way she spoke with her body. I’m always willing to learn from other people because I don’t know what their styles are like. When you’re open to something, you think, “Wow, maybe this is something I’m comfortable doing.” And then you open that box again and find something uncomfortable.
I also choreographed a piece for MOXIE’s set for K-night. That was really out of my comfort zone. I feel like my style is chill, but my friend Claudia was like, “Casey, you should do a sexy piece.” So I researched some music and I was like, “You know what, maybe I’ll do it.” I was looking up choreo and all these girls were in heels. I was bugging out, thinking, “This is crazy. But choreo projects are coming up, so why not?" They actually cut a part out of our set which was floor work. When we do choreo projects, the team sits in the front, and you’re looking at them. I was like, “ Ah… I can’t do this!” But doing that, even though it was really uncomfortable, it made me discover what I was capable of doing.
"There’s always something new you can learn even from yourself. Keep trying, keep learning. I’m always a student." - Casey Santiago
STEPH: Are there any women that you look up to? Maybe it’s not your teammates around you; but more significant people in the dance community or someone else?
ALEX: Alice Wu is an OG dancer in the community that we really look up to. She was a judge for Defining Rhythm and she has a lot of modern incentives. She talks a lot about the hardships of being accepted and being taken seriously, especially because she is a professional dancer and a woman. Even though I say that our dance community is very accepting of woman, when you’re out there trying to get a job, they really base their decision on your appearance. You can be a dope ass dancer but you’re too short. Or, you have too big of boobs, get out of here. Even though I haven’t experienced it personally, I am really empathetic to women that have experienced that and that empowers me.
CASEY: Alice said something at Defining that really struck everyone. She said, “If not confidence, then courage.” If you’re not confident then at least have the courage to go out there and do what you do. She’s so humble and I look up to her for that. Closer to home, it’s my grandma. She’s done a lot for her kids, and I feel like she doesn’t get a lot of credit sometimes. She’s been moving a lot back and forth from Hawaii to the Philippines, then she came back to New York. She had to quit her job to raise me. It was really tough on her but she held it together. Right now she’s still cooking and she walks around all the time. She’s a real badass.