My Degree is in Life
“Our teacher used to take us to New York,” remembers Ron Holiday. “The big treat was Radio City Music Hall.” Here in 1954, he and fellow dancing student Joy were enthralled, and they could imagine no greater thrill than one day performing on that grand and storied stage. That is, until Ron, who was slightly older, graduated from school and went off to seek work as a dancer and Joy had a moment of crisis.
As Ron recalls this moment for Cat Dancers, Joy told him she was facing a choice: “I want to become a nun and I want to be a dancer,” she said. Oh, Ron says with an insinuated harrumph: he was furious. “All the work we’ve done and you’re gonna become a nun?” His fate was saved by the Mother Superior Joy consulted, who told her, “Go to New York and dance for God.” Over old-timey footage of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan, and photos of the couple’s early professional performances, Ron exults, “I was so grateful to that nun!”
Ron’s story is like that, full of exclamation points. Introduced in Harris Fishman’s documentary as he’s tending to his dogs and donning his dark curly wig, Ron is a vibrant, self-aware performer. He and Joy eventually married (their wedding photos show the spectacular gown he designed for her), and his memories of their life together are shaped by their shared love of dancing—movement, physicality, risk—as well as their devotion to the temples they made of their bodies. Scrapbooks and magazines reveal this devotion, as Ron smiles over their sublime, nearly Apollonian figures. While he and Joy both danced ballet, and he spent some time as a naked dancer for the Folies Bergère in Paris (a photo shows yet another view of his stunning physique, surrounded by dancing girls and feathers), their genre of choice became adagio, in which, he explains, “the male [is] partnering the female, glorifying her to make her look as beautiful as he can possibly make her look.” Indeed, Joy is gorgeous.
When they made it to Radio City Music Hall, they became famous, earning “kudos and accolades.” Here they met William Holden, who especially liked working with big cats. He so appreciated their help in the show, he gave them a black leopard cub: “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” remembers Ron. Now it came to him, how to extend and even expand their careers. “I dreamt about it first,” he says, “that Joy was a cat, in a beautiful cat costume, and I was the trainer.” This fantasy gives way to reality, as they train their black cat Aladdin to perform on stage, alongside Joy—in a cat costume.
As Ron recalls, their family expanded over the years to include still more animals—tigers, lions, and a jaguar—as well as a third human member. In 1988, the Holidays hired Chuck Lizza as a co-trainer and performer. “He was damn cute and he was a gorgeous male,” says Ron, “He was all man.” And, he adds, Chuck agreed to come on as a performer only if Ron did not insist that he wear tights, a condition to which Ron agreed: “He had nice tight pants that fit his ass real good and then loose, and he looked great.”
As a unit, Ron, Joy, and Chuck understood the complexities of working with big cats, of never taking for granted their fundamental status as wild animals. As Chuck tells a TV interviewer, “There are definite problems and definite dangers to it,” but the three spend long hours thinking about these problems and training themselves as well as their cats. Their show—before the great success of Siegfried and Roy, was the most popular big cat act in the United States (Ron recalls a brief flirtation with Siegfried, whom he describes as “not my type, he was too femme”).
So far, so enchanted. Their personal relationship evolves along with their professional relationship—eventually, their intimacy and trust spill over into the bedroom. Though they were aware of rumors circulating among friends and associates, they kept their domestic arrangements a secret “No one knew really what cat dancers were,” says Ron. Describing their family as “three of the most unique people,” Ron remembers their mutual agreements and lack of expectations or obligations in phrases that sound idyllic, accompanied by a happily plinky piano soundtrack: “No one held anyone and I think in true love, that’s the only way it can work,” he says. “We didn’t have these restrictions that usually start discord in a marriage.” He wears three wedding rings intertwined on a chain around his neck, Ron says, an emblem of their complicated, true love.
You know that trouble is coming, if only because Ron is the only narrator for Cat Dancers. Still, the turn their story takes is both tragic and horrifying. Using amateur footage of the stage performances, as well as Ron’s interview segments and terrific archival photos, taken from his private collection as well as a public record, the film also contrasts this romantic past intercut with Ron’s present life as an animal trainer instructor in Florida. “My degree is in life,” he tells his students. “I am going to be 70 years old in February. I’ve been training animals for 50 years and I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” The film, however, is not focused on mistakes. While it raises questions about the boundaries between humans and animals, about the dangers of living too closely with creatures that are at base wild, instinctual, and remorseless, Cat Dancers is also a very detailed, very moving portrait of a family—unapologetic and faithful. “Animals are animals,” says Ron. “And no one can understand that you can love an animal to the point that you are responsible to that animal.” Still, as he explains it, that responsibility is unmistakable.