What I'm Reading: ‘Dancer From the Dance’

February 21, 2016

Courtesy of U. of Notre Dame
Jason Ruiz
In preparation for a new undergraduate class on queer identity formations since the turn of the 20th century, I spent my weekends working through a rich and sometimes frustrating set of potential readings: gay novels of the too-brief period between gay liberation and the onslaught of AIDS. One of those books, Andrew Holleran’s 1978 gay classic, Dancer From the Dance, is a camp masterpiece that captures both the freedom and the self-loathing found in urban gay life in the 1970s — as well as the racial and ethnic prejudices (often couched as desires) of its white gay characters.

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As I reread Dancer to consider it for the classroom, I found myself blanching at its sexual frankness, even as I recognized that very frankness as a crucial source of the novel’s genius and its political potential. In an age of trigger warnings and renewed threats to academic freedom, assigning graphic sexual content feels risky again.

Sex wields tremendous power over the young, pretty, witty New Yorkers who inhabit Dancer, and Mr. Holleran describes both their sexual practices and, uproariously and touchingly, how they think and talk about sex. The book takes sex seriously enough to ask not only what people do, but what it all means.

I cannot predict how my students will respond to this aspect of Dancer, but its potential to challenge them to think deeply and critically about the meanings of sex eventually outweighed my fear of offending them.

Jason Ruiz is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.