Body languages: Filipina vets come together to create a new home for self-expression

Body languages: Filipina vets come together to create a new home for self-expression

The sheer number of dance crews from around the islands in annual competitions and noontime variety shows proves that Filipinos love the stage. Hip-hop, vogue, dancehall, and funky freestyle are subgenres that you may or may not have heard of, but whose moves you’ve definitely seen popping up through the local dance scene.

This November, five Filipinas who’ve made waves in their respective dance subgenres will hold a month-long series of free (yup, you read right) workshops for ladies of all skill levels, all culminating in a showcase this December. What better way to demonstrate newfound skills than a straight-up, no-frills, all-in battle, right?

Each vet hails from a unique background: a mother, a visual artist, a psychologist, to name a few. The spaces claimed by their genres are equally diverse, from professional dance studios, to upscale hotels in Makati, to a plaza across city hall.

AC Lalata

Dancing since childhood, AC Lalata’s (@aclalata) love for hip-hop started with the beats. The music came first, then the Google searches, as the trajectory of fandom led to discovering the dance scene. As a true fan girl, she never expected to one day be part of the scene she’s come to love. From joining one of the most recognized crews to striking it out on her own as an alumna, AC now hopes to foster a stronger hip-hop community in the Philippines.

“The music comes first and dance comes second,” she expounds,“I did my research, I did my study, the culture, everything.” But make no mistake, this isn’t purely academic note-taking: Here, the best study is to dive into the world of hip-hop head first.

She found herself welcomed by the Philippine All-Stars, a team that’s always repped the yellow sun and stars in the world stage. Behind the stage lights and the photoshoot glitz, she saw the rigor of the craft and fell more in love with it. She doesn’t deny that initially, it was challenging to go full-time as a dancer, but she’s since honed the business acumen and creative inspiration to create her own dance duo with another vet, Matt Padilla.

She recalls a time when Pinoy rap and hip-hop was seen as “jejemon,” but given its mainstream status today, she harbors no “told-you-so” sass (fine, maybe just a little) to the new converts as she welcomes them all. It’s about the community, right? So why shun newcomers? She beams, narrating people’s evolving tastes: “‘Ay hindi pala ito jejemon. Hindi ito baduy. It looks so cool.’ Lalo na ‘yung pinapakita mo ‘yung sariling ikaw talaga with that style.”

And yet her outlook goes beyond the genre: Hip-hop is one of many mediums where anyone can express who they are in new ways. 

Xyza Ragunjan

The music is straight out of a runway in Milan, New York, or Paris, the poses lifted out of the glossy pages of Vogue. Flamboyant, sassy, and extravagant, voguing as a dance rightly follows the titular fashion magazine.

The movement began in the late 1890s when a group of black women decided to start their own ballrooms after being unfairly judged in mostly-white balls. Almost a century later, voguing was the de rigeur style of clubs which doubled as safe spaces for black and Latino LGBTQ youth in NYC who were often disowned by their families.

Recently, voguing has offered respite for repressed communities in Russia and the Middle East. Closer to home, you might remember the House of Edwards drag queens.

And in these clubs, new families were born. Often run by a “mother” and “father” (without necessarily adhering to biological sex), vogue houses are not just dance troupes, but adoptive homes for many.

Xyza Ragunjan (@helidaxyza) is one such mother. Representing a New York-based house, Xyza is not just an instructor, but a mediator and mentor, embracing all the complexities of raising an actual family: “‘Di siya kagaya ng ibang group na kapag mayroon kang ginawang mali, out ka na. Kaya nga siya house, kaya siya family, you don’t kick anyone out if you’re a member of the house.”

Since migrating from America’s migrant capital, the vogue ball is the perfect place for individuals to dominate without trampling others, to experience friendly rivalry, to explore unhindered and unapologetic selves often hiding from the gaze of society.

Xyza hopes to see more houses arise organically across our islands as voguing is not just for “the dance community, but also the fashion industry, of course the LGBT community.” Given its cosmopolitan nature, she believes Filipino culture – with its endemic dances and aesthetics – has a lot to offer to vogue worldwide.

Elly Burgonio 

It started with gigs and live bands. As funk and its derivatives find constant verve in the local music scene, Elly “Phoenix” Burgonio (@ellyphoenix) can’t help but be taken by the scratch of guitar strings hitting the higher frets, the thumping bass, the crashing cymbals, the hooks, the build-ups, the drops.

The edgier cousin of disco, funk, like its relative hip-hop, has evolved its own dance genre: funky freestyle. True to its urban roots, the stage extends from the club and well into the street – with friends agreeing to meet up outdoors to hold cyphers. And yet the music never leaves according to Elly as “even if you think you’re doing the techniques but if you’re not funky, it doesn’t make sense.”

The Philippines especially has elevated funk, creating new techniques, shares Elly. She explains that it’s all about Filipino rawness, about heart, our ability to take something imported and turn it into something distinctly ours. Bands like IV of Spades, Apartel, and yes, even VST come to mind.

 

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But funk goes beyond the musical genre as recently, funky freestyle has exported its dance moves to hip-hop troupes and more. Elly’s canvass also includes Jojo, Beyoncé, and of course, Janet Jackson.

Funk and hip-hop are street cultures, but for Elly, it’s not just about unleashing your inner angas. It’s about exploring and settling differences through the cypher, the great equalizer: “Walang mataas, walang mababa, we’re all one in that circle. Walang sikat, walang bago lang.” North and south of EDSA, jams (other than traffic) occur frequently on the streets, across municipal halls to the few parks still standing in the metro. All this has been made easier by social media.

The Phoenix nickname rose from the very street cyphers she would frequent: during an all-boys vs. all-girls battle, Elly and co. attempted to match their male rival’s stunts. With intense coordination, and with Elly pulling off many aerials and climbs, she evoked the resurrection of the iconic Marvel character.

 

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Ultimately, Phoenix is not just her, but the experience of resurrection she brings to communities helped by dance. A psychology major with a minor in special education, Elly combined course and passion to answer the question: “What can I do to serve?” She recalls a child struggling with autism who eventually learned speech after learning how to dance.

Bigger picture-wise, Elly sees dance as a universal language. “No matter where we are and what we believe in, ‘di mo kailangan maging professional to express yourself. You go to parties and see people dance because they want to express themselves, sad or happy.”

Kristal Bermudo

Jamaica shares many features with the Philippines: both were marked by colonialism, both subverted the culture of their occupiers, and both today continue to struggle with similar issues despite being idealized as sunny, tropical paradises by foreign tourists.

It’s in the heat of these political climates that the most dynamic cultural expressions are born, because the harder you fight, the harder you party, too. Filipinos, Kristal Bermudo (@dhq_kristal) suggests, can connect to the black communities of Jamaica through learning dancehall, and by extension, taking one on a trip across time and space.

Dancehall was born in Kingston’s working class after-work hubs. DJs experimented with new tech to make an upbeat and more danceable offshoot of reggae: birthing iconic (and memorably named) dancehall moves (Booty Pop, Summa Jam, Black Spyda). Soon, the riddims went beyond Jamaica and dancers all around the world continue to add to a growing body of moves.

Kristal was dancing even as a toddler, her feet taking to music like other children to candy. Since then, she’s dabbled in hip-hop and cheer dance, working with groups like the All-Stars and Unschooled. Like Elly and AC, it was the music that drew Kristal to dancehall. And like her contemporaries, she eventually fell in love with the culture surrounding and rooting her mastered genre: “Malalim siya, sobrang lawak siya.”

 

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Manila already had dancehall and reggae enthusiasts. Clubs would spin riddims for nights of social dancing, but it wasn’t until Kristal and a few others requested international teachers, including those from Jamaica, to visit the country and share more that it really took hold as a competitive dance sport. Thus, Dance Hall Manila,a collective hosting weekly parties and regular battles, was born.

Despite the competitive element, Kristal believes dancehall’s roots as a social dance will continue to inspire more people to take it up.

Madelle Paltu-ob

As a mother of five, Madelle Paltu-ob (@madellepaltuob) salutes two mothers.

First is her biological mother, who designated her daughter as the family entertainer during gatherings, dancing when told to, singing when told to. It was here that she got over stage fright and found a love for connecting with an audience via self-expression. Yet it wasn’t until she was 19 that she took up formal lessons.

It was this combination of beat and bop that led her to flow hip-hop. It’s a genre-within-a-genre that’s hard to describe. Compared to other dance forms, not much has been documented on flow so far. But perhaps that’s about to change.

Madelle puts it best: “If we’re talking about hip-hop, or house, all of those came from the same culture. It all started in the clubs. Again going back to social dancing, going back to play, going back to having fun. Dance begins when the music is there. Music and dance will always be one.”

For this flow artist, the best moves are all organic, where people, breaking through initial shyness, start expressing themselves wordlessly through dropping moves. “It’s about going with the flow. Kung nasaan ‘yung music, kung ano ‘yung energy na nasa loob ng kwarto, ‘yun ‘yun eh.

And through it all, Madelle eventually met her mentor and second mother, local hip-hop pioneer Lema Diaz. “In life, not just dance, she taught me everything I know. How to be generous, how to continuously give and not hold anything back for the community.”

Meeting Diaz through the Philippine All-Stars, Madelle echoes Elly’s realizations on the street cypher’s true spirit: “Nabago ‘yung pananaw ko on what hip-hop really is about. Bottom line, it’s about the people. It’s about who will be there for you when you have everything and when you have nothing.”

Diaz, Madelle, and their partners (also professional dancers), with Kristal and more friends, all worked together to establish the Philippine hip-hop community, bringing in renowned international acts like Elite Force to teach the basics and mentor the first teams of battlers.

Yet Madelle’s education never ends. Returning from New York recently, she recalls how she shared the floor with the OGs of hip-hop, and it always, always bounces back to community, to organic origins. “It’s not about labels, it’s not about vocab, it’s not about ‘Oh what’s the name of this step?’ But at the end of the day, it’s who you are and what you can bring on the dancefloor. It’s about having fun. It’s about play.”

***

While dance is also about personal skill, it’s ultimately about community, passing on what you’ve learned, no secret skills held back. It’s about giving people across backgrounds the opportunity to express themselves confidently.

Take it from mommy Madelle: “Dance is for everyone, walang pinipili na kulay, bata o matanda, handicapped o hindi, lahat naka-iintindi ng music, lahat naka-iintindi ng sayaw.”

As the histories of hip-hop, vogue, and dancehall show, dance thrives in places where simply being who you are is challenged. Like the best of art works, dance derives from and adds anew to niche communities, all making a sport and entertainment that’s at once liberating.

Enter Nike, specifically through its newly-released Icon Clash collection, a lifestyle and performance series inspired heavily by basketball culture. Basketball and street dance share common origins in urban youth culture since the 70s, sharing fashion and music. 

Xyza describes that flow state all athletes aspire towards: “Kung ano yung nararamdaman nung tao at that moment, you feel it through movements, through actions. Kahit ‘di ka nagsasalita, yung action mo lang nag-ra-radiate na, mayroong message.”

It’s precisely in this spirit that the girls aim to promote a dance culture that’s all for one and one for all. As AC says, dance is a language of action louder than words, and these ladies invite all girls to raise their voices – wordlessly.

Follow the dance influencers journey on their Instagram: @madellepaltuob, @dhq_kristal, @helidaxyza, @ellyphoenix, and @ACLalata. #NikeIconClash To sign up for the workshops: https://www.nike.com/events-registration/series?id=6221&days=0   

Production and interview by Eliel Jeuz Sayo

Photography by Renzo Navarro

Art direction by Cathy Dizon

Creative direction by Nimu Muallam

Styled by Florian Trinidad

Makeup by Hanna Pechon

Hair by Bench Fix Salon

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