Ron Holiday seemed to lead a charmed life. He and Joy were childhood sweethearts who were able to share professional dancing careers. As they hit their 30s " essentially the profession's retirement age " they launched their show with rare tigers and leopards. They broke new ground performing with large animals in theaters instead of circus environments. Their approach was more humane and the shows more graceful. Through the '60s and '70s, they filled big theaters from Radio City Music Hall in New York to casinos in Vegas.
In the '80s, they took in a third trainer/performer, Chuck Lizza, to share their work. He was skilled working with the cats, but he also fit strangely well into their personal lives and the three became an ongoing menage a trois. It wasn't until a white tiger named Jupiter came into their lives that the group's harmony was torn apart.
Fishman's documentary is a fascinating chronicle of the Holidays' lives recounted by Ron as he comes to terms with the end of his career as a Cat Dancer. He is onscreen so much, essentially narrating the film, that it almost seems like his autobiography. During the six years of filming, he was very open with Fishman, though not always in a state of mind to cooperate. Fishman and his crew would fly to Ron's Florida home from California. Sometimes Ron opened up and talked and other times he refused. Once when he didn't want to go on camera, he went to his attic, pulled out a suitcase full of 8mm film reels going back to the Holidays' work in the late-'50s, handed it to the filmmaker and told him to go away. It was a goldmine of footage that gave Fishman amazing access to their lives.
The question of whether it's possible to have a long career working with dangerous animals cuts to the heart of the perverse tension of such a show's allure. The threat of danger is never merely an illusion. And no matter how cute it is to see tigers suck on a bottle of milk, nuzzle the Holidays or play like an oversized house cat, they still have paws the size of catcher's mitts, jaws that can crush cinder blocks and the instincts of predators. Even Ron never thought they could be domesticated. He and Joy believed that conditioning would let them work with the animals. 'We would start with them when they were very young, less than 4 weeks old," Holiday says in a phone interview from his home in Florida. 'We carried them around, let them hear our hearts beat, nursed them with bottles." In preparation for their act, they trained the cats to become accustomed to anything that might happen during the course of a show, from smoking around the cats (though neither Holiday smoked) to dropping plates of dishes. They tried to anticipate everything. 'We were doing one show in Las Vegas and Liz Taylor was sitting in the front row," Holiday says. 'She was wearing a big collar of marabou. It looked like a bird. I had to go in the audience to ask her to take it off before the show began."
As tiger species are pushed toward extinction around the world, there is ironically a fetishized interest in collecting and displaying the rarest breeds (sometimes confused with preservation of the species). White tigers are particularly prized, and the Holidays adopted theirs because they thought that audiences would demand one. In fact, Joy was concerned that the few white tigers in captivity were so inbred that the animals would be dangerous and unpredictable. Ron still believes that was a factor in Jupiter's behavior. He's quick to point out, however, that taking a creature out of the wild is not the creature's choice, and that humans bear responsibility for what they try to do with the animals and how the animals react. That's a crushing principle for a man who suffers its consequences.
Cat Dancers is a heartbreaking as much as a horrific story. The Holidays come off as quite sympathetic for their visionary attempt to work with animals and produce something that showed their love for them more than a fascination with danger. It might seem like a perverse dream they followed, but it's hard not to wonder if they were simply blinded by love.