For Alyssa Gregory, Dance Is A Vessel For Communication
Written by Vocalo Radio on August 17, 2023
Alyssa Gregory is a Chicago-based contemporary dancer who hopes to showcase the richness of the South Side’s dance community while advocating for the needs of fellow artists.
As long as she can remember, Alyssa Gregory has dreamed of being a dancer. When a 5-year-old Gregory wouldn’t change out of her ballerina costume days after Halloween, her mom decided to place her into dance classes — and from there, her infatuation with the art took off.
“The first couple years I was just taking ballet,” Gregory recalled. “Then ballet turned to ballet and tap, and then it was ballet, tap, jazz and then it was ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, then ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical. Then, I was in my studio five to six days a week, three to four hours a day.”
Gregory eventually made her way to Chicago from Northern Virginia with hopes to join dance companies, meet associates and expand knowledge of the dance community. She took classes and watched performances whenever and wherever she could, finding her way into the existing Chicago dance community while building one for herself. Twelve years later, she’s found her place in an ecosystem of creatives as well as a queer community supporting her artistic journey.
“I feel like my life slowly ballooned into this beautiful, beautiful world,” she expressed.
Gregory performs often with The Fly Honey Show, a burlesque cabaret-inspired party created by her friend and collaborator Erin Kilmurray. Leading with body and sex positivity, The Fly Honeys creates a space, for themselves and others, for honest expression and discussion. Gregory says she has seen some of the city’s top-tier performers at the cabaret. She feels secure and celebrated by this community simply from existing in the space and, when performing, “experiencing people experience her.”
After spending years observing inequities in the city’s dance community, Gregory concluded someone who actually knows the community’s needs should be on the administrative side. She went on to earn her masters in performing arts administration from Roosevelt University in 2019, with hopes to bring more representation and equality to Chicago’s arts world.
“We need someone that knows us, that knows small, independent Chicago dance, and understands what the needs actually are that are talking to these people … making these decisions,” she explained.
Understanding actual community needs is imperative to Gregory’s mission, as well as showcasing the cultural richness of Chicago’s South Side. Now, as the communications managers for Arts and Public Life, Gregory strives to address the needs of creators in and around Washington Park. She is currently a communications manager at Arts + Public Life, an initiative from University of Chicago Arts. Gregory also centers the work of Chicago dancers and dance-makers on her podcast “The Process,” which she notes hopes to “pull back the curtain and demystify how dance is made.”.
“Audiences just see the final product,” she explained. “They don’t understand about how many iterations something takes to get, how many tries something has to happen, what actually doesn’t make it on the final product, and that’s part of the whole dance in itself.”
In this installment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Alyssa Gregory provides insight into her history as an administrative arts leader and dancer, while reflecting on her artistic journey using dance as a mode of connection.
When did you start dancing?
Well, when I was 5 years old, I dressed up as a ballerina for Halloween. And then I just wouldn’t take the costume off, I would come home from school, I’d be like, “Mom, where’s the costume? Let’s change.” And so then she was like, “I think something might be here.” So then she put me in dance class. And then the first couple of years, I was just taking ballet, and then ballet turned to ballet and tap. And then it was ballet, tap, jazz, then it was ballet, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and then ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical. And then I was in my studio, five to six days a week, three to four hours a day.
What kind of dance do you do now?
I’m a contemporary dancer by trade. But I think that when I say that I’m a dancer, I think … my body is just a vessel of communication of thoughts and ideas, and histories are embedded in my body. I did some choreography, but I think I feel much better as a collaborator, and not just the one that’s just in charge. Originally, I’m from northern Virginia, just outside of DC. I came to Chicago in hopes to join dance companies and meet people and expand my knowledge of the dance world.
I just started taking classes wherever I could, and going to see dance, also. And so that was my first big entryway into the dance community. And then, the more that I saw classes and saw shows, and asked people questions about their work and stuff, I built a community for myself here. And now, 12 years later, I have the loves of my life that are like my family here. And I have a really beautiful ecosystem of creatives that I’m a part of, and a really beautiful queer community that I’m also a part of. I feel like my life just slowly kind of ballooned into this beautiful, beautiful world.
What kind of performances are you part of?
My last project that I just did was with Erin Kilmurray. That work was called “Nightshade,” and that was really incredible. And then I perform a lot with The Fly Honeys. The Fly Honey Show is a burlesque cabaret-inspired party. We are body-positive, we are sex-positive, we are the space where we’re going to talk about it, talk about it honestly, and make sure that you make space for yourself and other people. It’s also a space where, I think, I’ve seen the top-tier performers in Chicago.
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It’s changed me as a space where, when I started it in year five, I was not the human that I am, at all, anymore. And now, I’ve grown into myself and much more secure in who I am, and much were celebrated by being in that space. And it’s not just being inside the show, it’s also experiencing people experience me, which is just a profound feeling. And having people come up and be like, “I had never thought that I could see something like this, or be in a space like this, or that this even existed.” And you’re like, “Yeah! You’re part of the hive. You’re here, so like, you’re in it. You’re in it.”
Do you have a day job?
I am also an arts administrator. I decided, there was a moment in the dance world, I was like – I remember this very vividly – I was having drinks with my friend Erin and my friend Nora, and we were talking about the inequities of the dance world… specifically here in Chicago, and what we’re missing, what we’re needing, what people are doing and not doing. I kind of, in my head, was like, “Yeah, we need someone that knows us, that knows small, independent Chicago dance, and understands what the needs actually are that are talking to these people, these huge funders and these people that are making these decisions.” And so I decided to go back and get my master’s in performing arts administration. And so now I am currently the communications manager at Arts + Public Life, which is an initiative of University of Chicago Arts. And we serve the people of Washington Park, that is the goal of APL, is to provide. All of our programming is free. APL programs First Monday Jazz, we program Rear View Mirror Sessions, we have an education department, we have an art gallery with exhibitions, three to four a year, and we have a retail shop where we have… South Side small business owners that get to learn how to work in a brick and mortar store. We are really trying to showcase how rich and important the South Side is.
Do you do other kinds of work?
My podcast, it’s called “The Process,” and it’s a podcast for dancers, dance-makers and all-around booty shakers. And we are here to kind of pull back the curtain and demystify how dance is made. I think dance can be a mystery, because it’s so abstract, if it’s not a literal piece… you’re like, “What am I watching? And what am I supposed to get from it?” And it’s like, it can be anything! You can have conflicting thoughts about a work that you just saw, and that’s great, because now there’s a conversation that can happen. Because I can see something and you can see something different, and then that’s so beautiful. Multiple views of the same thing helps dance keep going, and allows for us to have purpose in making. And I think, the mystery of how something gets made… audiences just see the final product, and they don’t understand about how many iterations something takes to get, how many tries something has to happen, what actually doesn’t make it on the final product, and that’s part of the whole dance in itself.
How has Chicago influenced you and your work?
Chicago dance is so layered and beautiful. And Chicago is so gritty and down and just about being community and celebratory that I, anytime I’m in a space, I’m like, “It’s a yes.” And it makes me feel okay being vulnerable, when I’m dancing. And especially when, if I’m doing a contemporary dance or if I’m on Fly Honey, I know that the people in the audience and on the stage with me are true people that just want to celebrate and be in the moment, and Chicago has this sparkle about it that I feel not any other place has. New York doesn’t have this and LA doesn’t have this, and I don’t want them to have what we have. I’m greedy! I’m like, you can say over there, we’re doing great! We’re doing great. We have something that is so unique, and everybody is working hard, everyone is hustling, everyone is seeing each other and meeting each other with what they have in the moment. And that’s also the beauty of Chicago. And when I perform… we’re all just agreeing to be great in what we got.
I’m really proud of who I am, and I think that’s because of Chicago. I’m proud to now call this place home. I’m proud to be a queer Black woman. Chicago’s really made me feel comfortable in saying those things. I’m more proud of my skin and the armor that it is. I’m just a lot more comfortable with who I am because I am in this space and in this city.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Omi Salisbury
Introduction written by Imani Warren and Morgan Ciocca
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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