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A dance-world wallflower finds digital sustenance with Fly Honey

On a Sunday afternoon in early April, feeling trapped at home and desperate for a dose of glamour, I threw together the sexiest outfit/attitude I could muster and tuned into an online dance workshop I’d heard about on Instagram. I needed to get my blood moving and I couldn’t handle any more drizzly, chilly walks around the same few city blocks, avoiding eye contact with neighbors masked and unmasked. Feels like ages ago.

For one hour that weekend, in the privacy of my studio apartment, I shook out all my early-quarantine stress: the abrupt shift to remote work, the isolation of my living situation, and the pervasive, collective fear of exposure to inevitable illness, death, and/or utter financial ruin. NBD. I cleared a makeshift dance space and attempted moves that would make my Catholic mother blush. I don’t remember the last time I felt so good in my body.

This was my first direct encounter with The Fly Honey Show, which hosted a wave of “Honey From Home” open dance workshops this spring through Instagram Live and Zoom. It was an unprecedented start to an uncertain summer season for the cabaret ensemble, which marked ten years as a Chicago dance tradition last August with a well-attended run at the Den Theater in Wicker Park. I never managed to catch the show, which I’ve heard described as “part cabaret, part variety event, and part burlesque,” with the feel of a “joyous private party.” 

I’ll call my relationship with the Fly Honeys a social-media crush, as I was always bowled over by images of the performers’ bold confidence and raw sexuality. Even more than the range of body types and skin tones and ink on display, they always seemed to me to represent a certain kind of cool-babe self-love. The classes cover about one minute each of choreography from a past season of the show, taught by one of the three members of the choreography team: Kasey Alfonso, Alyssa Gregory, and founder and director Erin Kilmurray.

I should admit up front that I’m not much of a dancer, nor am I particularly athletic. I’m also a person with Type 1 diabetes who relies on an insulin pump and feels awkward in group-fitness situations. But Kilmurray takes issue with those stated limitations. She talks about dance like other people talk about yoga or mindfulness: It’s something you practice. Make adjustments. Try something different.

“Choreography is a conduit for a feeling that you as a dancer can create for yourself,” Kilmurray says. “You don’t have to be ‘good’ at it. My goal is that we give the tools to each person who’s practicing to make choices that feel right for you because of the story you’re trying to tell.”

It’s still unclear to me exactly what story I was trying to tell in those early weeks of lockdown, or to whom. But over the course of six or seven classes, I gradually started to pick up more Fly Honey lingo. A “dancer’s choice moment,” for example, means taking however many counts of music to freestyle, to be present in the live experience, to add some hips or some shoulders or whatever feels right. Love on yourself. Make a choice. I’m also a fan of what I’m calling the “shoomp-shoomp,” where you sort of throw everything to one side and then the other, a pleasingly symmetrical one-two punch.

“We’re well versed in the practice of making material that gives people the choice to work with what they’ve got, whether that’s their bodies, or their dance experience, or the room that they’re in,” Kilmurray says. The group had hosted citywide in-person workshops in springs past, so “that’s already built into our culture and our class culture.”

The Instagram Live videos indulge a pretty luxe backstage-showgirl fantasy, if you ask me. Kilmurray says it seems to be a decent mix of newcomers, like me, and former ensemble members or otherwise known quantities. The online open-level workshops this spring attracted about 50-60 people each—certainly more than one could reasonably fit in your average dance studio. Kilmurray says the workshops, which have been free of charge with a suggested donation of $5 per class, have been self-sustaining for the teaching artists and administrative side.

One Friday night, Kilmurray teaches a tease from a few seasons ago, set to “Pony” by Ginuwine. She offers some storytelling options around the flirtatious choreography: the idea is that you’re dancing to the left wall, whether that’s your partner, or an imagined audience member who’s caught your eye, or your cat, or your couch. Keep returning to that sightline and think about who you’re dancing for.

“The culture that my team and I work really hard to create is deeply embedded in the idea of togetherness and allowing for the dancers and the witnesses—I say witnesses because the dancers are also each others’ witnesses, right? It’s not just the audience—to exchange energy,” Kilmurray says. “To adapt that in the virtual world was certainly a challenge.”

The “Honey From Home” project evolved from week to week before hitting pause in June, while the Honeys rest their wings and rethink what this year’s “Honey Season” might look like. Advanced workshops were added on the Zoom platform on Monday mornings. The choreography team established a “Honey Hotline” to ensure communication between the class instructor and the live audience learning and rehearsing at home. And the world kept turning (hardly twirling) around us.

Gregory wore a Black Lives Matter shirt as she taught a class on Sunday, May 31, the first weekend that police protests seemingly engulfed the city in a collective flame, licking and raging and fusing together and splitting apart.

“That day was insanely hard,” recalls Gregory, who doubles as the organization’s social media manager, of the morning after the mayor’s first curfew. Though she felt deeply supported by her team, she felt a responsibility to show up to work: “For me, my body experiencing any moment of joy is an act of resistance. I don’t want to give this so much power that I can’t do my job. . . .  In hindsight, I didn’t realize until I started the live video and going over choreography how OK I actually wasn’t.”

The decision to shift donations to charities in light of the recent police protests made immediate sense to the group’s leadership. Over the course of the first week of June the Fly Honeys saw a spike in giving when they announced a fund-raiser for Black Visions Collective, a Minneapolis-based social justice organization, and the south side’s Brave Space Alliance (after the flooded Chicago Community Bond Fund encouraged donors to shift their giving to other organizations in need). They raised a total of $2,669 for the two groups.

“Fly Honey is a body-based performance project,” Kilmurray says. “Bodies and space are political, no matter what space they’re in and whose they are. We’re doing what we can with the resources we have to contribute to the movement. It’s really as simple as that. It doesn’t feel like a radical gesture.”  v

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