Tell these three young ladies that they fight, climb, dance or act “like a girl,” and they’ll take it as the ultimate compliment. All younger than 13 with very different passions, these extraordinary South Bay youth prove that with a kind heart and both eyes on a dream, you can be unstoppable.
- Written byJulia Horwitz
Photographed by Siri Berting
When it comes to defying the odds, nobody does it better than young girls. So easily underestimated and so undeniably awesome, these three young South Bay women play by their own rules and reinvent the game in the process. No matter who you are, no matter your gender or your age—anyone can benefit from being a little more like these small but mighty forces of nature.
When I first met Alexis Chavira, my knee-jerk reaction was to remark on how adorable she is—a petite 9-year-old with long, beautiful hair and a sweet smile. But as soon as she shook my hand, I was put in my place.
Her grip, coupled with direct eye contact, was only a window into the powerhouse she is. Alexis has been doing martial arts, primarily jiu-jitsu, since she was 5 years old and has already earned a well-deserved reputation in a sport dominated by boys.
It all started when she saw the movie Kung Fu Panda and tried some tricks. Turns out, she’s a natural.
Alexis began training at Beach City Martial Arts, the gym that has backed her every step of the way since. She’s competed and held her own at regional competitions, namely as the only girl in her division at Gokor Hayastan—a tournament in North Hollywood. And in case you need another reason not to mess with her, she will be earning her black belt this September.
A few years ago Alexis noticed she moved her head and chest in certain ways while breathing and was soon diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. But she also noticed that when she practiced, these symptoms slipped away.
Her mom explains that she used to be painfully shy—“unable to look people in the eyes,” she says. But as her handshake shows, she’s come a long way in a short time.
Alexis remarks, “With confidence and how I live everyday life, martial arts have made a big difference.” The sport transforms her, and through it she has earned the apt name “Alexis Tough as Nails.”
Tatum Cunningham is another force to be reckoned with—yet in a way uniquely her own. She’s 9 years old with wild hair, a freckled nose and expressive hands, and she absolutely beams when she talks. She is one of those people who can warm a room just by being in it.
A recent Alta Vista Elementary student of the month, Tatum is a jack-of-all-trades and master of many—including but not limited to Irish dancing, rock climbing, painting, sailing, writing, cooking and being a full-time distributer of kindness.
Full of guts and gratitude, she is fearless. When asked how she got into rock climbing, she explains, “I started out climbing boulders, and when I fell I got right back up. By the time my parents were worried that I was okay, I was back up again.”
It’s as simple as that … the courage to get back up. She continues, “I deal with fear by knowing that once something is over, it’s over. I power through it, I know I’ve accomplished something, and I don’t feel scared anymore.”
Tatum’s commitment to loving others and herself is infectious. She is all about embracing the different strands of her heritage: Italian, African-American, Irish and Scottish. Cooking with her different family members is one of her favorite ways of exploring those layers.
She explains, “You want to find the next chapter of your background and relate it to things you like to do. I like to think about whether my parents and ancestors did the things I love doing.”
She also is a firm believer in random acts of kindness. Each winter she goes to the grocery store to buy flowers and then gives them to the person working the register; a year hasn’t gone by when the recipient hasn’t started crying.
Tatum insists, “I think it’s important to put a smile on at least one face every day.” And after meeting her, she certainly put a smile on mine.
Olivia Curry reminds us of the importance of being honest with oneself, no matter how scary that can be. At 12 years old Olivia—with a wide smile, blonde hair and composure beyond her years—has an impressive entertainment career under her belt.
A triple-threat singer, dancer and actor, she recently landed a role in the Grey Gardens musical at the Ahmanson Theatre with theatre heavyweights Betty Buckley and Rachel York. Olivia has been doing musical theatre since she was 7—many of those years spent with POPs in Hermosa Beach, expressing her passion for putting on a show.
Her first professional musical, Grey Gardens has stretched the boundaries of her natural talent. She is currently an understudy in the production, which she explains is “very different from actually playing a part, so I am glad that I’ve had so much support throughout the process. It’s hard because you have to learn everything from a distance and by watching—not necessarily by doing.”
Arguably even more impressive than these accomplishments is the work she has put into choosing a path that makes her happy. When Olivia was younger, she wanted to be a ballerina. She was incredible at it—taking classes at a Russian ballet school and doing jobs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the American Ballet Theatre.
But as she got older, she began to look at the sport more critically. While at a ballet intensive at the Bolshoi Ballet, Olivia looked around and thought, “I could sense the feeling of being with people who are very driven, forced and focused … everyone is very intense and in the zone, and it was a little too stressful. So I moved away from that.”
She really had to ask herself, “I like this, but do I really want to do this when I’m older?” It was that decision to move away from ballet that led her to the place she is now, and she couldn’t be happier.
Her love for musical theatre is infectious. She says her phone is full of ballads from every musical imaginable. “I love that no matter what, musicals are powerful—no matter what emotion they’re expressing.” And commitment to expressing that raw, powerful emotion in her own art is what pushes her forward.
For all of these girls, the experience of having people underestimate them is already familiar. As outstanding as they are, they know that the world they live in too often assumes very little of their potential. But for each of them, focusing on what they love and overcoming fear is the ultimate way of fighting back and biting back.
Olivia explains that because dance and acting are pushed into the categories of “girl things,” they’re not taken seriously. She explains, “People say, ‘Oh it’s dance—it’s easy.’ And I just think to myself, ‘You should try it!’ It’s harder than a lot of sports because you have to think about everything. You have to be an athlete and an artist at once.”
Alexis explains how one time a boy walked into the gym, saw her and remarked on how “cute and little” she was. She promptly replied, “I may be little, but I’m a beast,” and put him into a flying arm bar.
To these young ladies, it’s clear that you can’t be what you can’t see. When asked, “Who do you look up to?” the trio mentioned other women—some mentors, some celebrities—who have shown them what it looks like to realize their dreams.
For Tatum, it’s the older Irish dancers and teachers at Celtic Irish Dance Academy in Manhattan Beach and Palos Verdes. For Alexis, it’s those women taking over the martial arts world—including Rhonda Rousey and Carla Esparza, the now-renowned fighter who grew up in Redondo Beach. Role models have shown these girls what they can be and that they can inspire others in turn.
Heroes aside, there was one more question that needed to be asked: “What’s your favorite thing about yourself?” The results actually came fast. After a matter of seconds, all three girls easily listed their strengths … words that included “funny,” “creative,” “strong,” “persistent” and “grateful.”
Yes, this is what makes each of them so incredible. They already know they are amazing, they already know their strengths, and they just want to get down to business with putting those strengths to good use. If we could all do a little more of that—making lists of what makes us amazing and being unafraid to rattle them off—I think we could get one step closer to being more like these little women.