The past usually tends to hold some mystery. In exploring what came before, our minds get a chance to dwell into the unknown of ‘what it would have been like.’ But what a shock historical reminiscing can be when we find that the past seems to be holding a mirror to the present.
Dusting off a copy of Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel Dancer from the Dance, the story unravels in an eerily familiar tale. Grant it, Holleran’s classic isn’t at all that old. Whether it can even already be called a classic may be debatable. Yet, few would argue that being gay in the 70s was anything like being gay today.
Nevertheless, if you’re under 55, flipping the pages of this gay novel will feel like you’re taking a stroll down a sort memory lane that you didn’t experience, but know all too well. If you’re over 55, you perhaps lived it. No matter your age, what’s clear in reading Dancer from the Dance is that the ‘Dance’ is still going on.
The novel is a direct window into the gay social scene of the 70s. Sure, the ambiance has changed a bit. Today we have Gaga and Guetta, Hugos and Aperols, skinny jeans and mixing with mainstream. But the dance, like the book’s plot line, rolls on.
The story is focused around two main characters, an eccentric Andrew Sutherland and a disengaged Anthony Malone. The two make for an unlikely pair, hopping around New York’s underground gay scene, exploring the fleeting sensations of gay love and making their mark on Fire Island. But while decades have passed since their escapades were written, little has changed in the rituals they carried out. They may even have intensified.
For sure, with a more accepting society, Sutherland’s eccentric personality and loose tongue are all the more prevalent. RuPaul’s Drag Race has even brought such hilarity and cattiness into our living rooms. And you could probably do a poll in any gay establishment in New York City today and find that there are a whole lot of good looking, broken-hearted saps searching for life’s meaning. While Malone reminds us that love is a common goal (all too often wrapped in a misleading combination of sex), he also warns that it cannot be our reason for being. Malones are still around, still dangerously beautiful, and still lost to themselves.
Reading Dancer from the Dance makes today look like a redecorated and glorified version of the past. In a nod to ‘we are what we came from’ philosophy, the fictional book serves as a realistic glimpse at today’s gay culture. But, as the book is only the recent past, how long it continues to resemble the current gay scene remains to be seen.
The biggest difference between then and now isn’t the music playing in the background. It’s the connected technology in all of our pockets. And apps may slowly be killing the form of gay culture that not only defines this novel, but also defines us.
|Dancing the dance on Fire Island|
While there are downsides (past and present) to our alternative ghettos, especially hedonism, materialism and drugs, there is also a huge positive – the fun, safe place. The reason Sutherland and Malone are flocking to Fire Island is because it is an uninhibited gay congregation zone. Key West, Sitges and Mykonos all hold similar promises. So do gay-labelled dance floors, bars and saunas. But what happens when that same promise – searching for fun, acceptance and belonging – rings in your pocket? Quite simply, places close down.
That’s why Dancer from the Dance is a tale begging to be read (and reread) now. Malone and Sutherland are by far nowhere near what one would call role models. But if the gorgeous Malone ended up so discouraged in the real world, we can only imagine the loneliness of his counterparts online.
Dancer from the Dance is a reminder of the dance that belongs to us. Let us not forget how to dance it.