Chances Dances – Magic as a Survival Tactic

Luisa Muradyan

Dec 15, 2014

Glancing over my packet for Art League Houston’s charge practicum early last month, I noticed the words “you are invited” set slightly apart at the center of the front page. Italicized, in a font distinct from the rest of the cover text, “you are invited” had me thinking “garden party,” or actually, just “party.” Literal in my following of this theme, I found my afternoon session: “Party Out of Bounds,” presented by the artist and educator Aay Preston-Myint of Chances Dances in Chicago.

Before the afternoon sessions started, everyone gathered in a main gallery, lights lowered for the Slide Show & Tell Brunch. After the slideshow, three or four large tables buzzed. A hundred people? More? There wasn’t a free chair in sight, so I crouched down beside a table where Beth Secor of The Effemera Museum shepherded a conversation touching upon “arts economy,” “arts funding,” and “arts policy”—the themes charge organizers and participants had gathered to discuss.

Not a drop of pretense anywhere—not that I expected any, but this group kept it realer than average and the program’s spirit of honesty and authenticity was clearly a group project. Together, those at Beth’s table shared wisdom, asked questions, and provided hints about particular grants or organizations. What do you do when the grant you’ve applied for has so many strings attached you’re left feeling like a marionette? Tracking data—how do folks go about that? What are the ethical boundaries in our work as artists? How do artists define value? Are we being asked “to clean up the mess that capitalism made?” Why is compensation for artists so taboo a subject? The person beside me offered to share her chair. A taco made its way around the table, in case someone had a little more room.

Aay’s presentation was held in a south-facing studio with a paint-splattered table at its center. Opening the session, Aay shared the subtitle for the day’s talk: “Temporary Utopia, Witchcraft, and Alternative Economies.” It might be hard to see how those three ideas could mesh, but Chances Dances manages to braid those aesthetics, intentions, and practices together.

A little background and history: Chances Dances started in 2005 with the intention of creating a “queer dance party and safe space,” something akin to the feel of a small town gay bar, but in Chicago. Initially held on Monday nights in the back of a taqueria, from jump Chances was committed to an “aesthetic of staunch amateurism,” an aesthetic nurtured by the love and sweat of volunteers and a decision making process built on consensus. The question, the invitation, was, “How can dance floors and sharing that [dance] space create community?”

This idea of creating community through dance became even more powerful when I considered, as Aay shared, the ephemeral nature of this project. Though Chances is now established, has moved out of the taqueria, and raises funds for a Critical Fierceness Grant designed to support queer artists and art collectives, the organizers of the dances know that any dance could be the last—or the last in this space, or with this particular group of people— There is something bittersweet and sublime, not to mention urgent, about that realization. And so, Aay and others tend to the magic of Chances with great care and as an art practice.

During the second half of Aay’s talk, a fellow attendee asked specific questions about the management of the Critical Fierceness grants, microgrants, and other administrative conundrums. The scope of Chances and Aay’s presentation made those concerns as relevant and pressing as those wondering about queer art practice, cultivating a space where others can perform, and what happens when the aesthetic we started with no longer fits the organization we’ve become. How to start raising money through Sunday Soup and Jan Verwoert’s essay Exhaustion + Exuberance could live together in the space Aay created.

Dreamy and in discomfort—that’s how I left the workshop. Dreamy because I was inspired to think about magic as a survival tactic. (I’ve believed that since I was a little girl making potions in my backyard.) Discomfort in the best sense, troubling over the questions raised by “Party Out of Bounds” and charge: how to cultivate art, beauty, make the important gestures within this economy, feed myself, live well, understand the structures and restructure them in community, serve—