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Synopsis

Ron Holiday wanted to dance from a young age. He met his future wife Joy at a Maine dancing school when he was 11 years old and she was seven. "It was not love at first sight," Ron admits, but as young adults seeking their fortunes in New York City, they became a couple and eventually married, with Ron designing Joy's wedding gown.

The pair soon became a well-known adagio ballet team and performed at Radio City Music Hall. During this time, a friend, actor William Holden, gave them a black leopard cub from his African animal preserve, and Ron and Joy began training their first exotic cats. After the duo's act took off, Ron and Joy moved to the Cat Dancers Ranch in Florida and hired Chuck Lizza, a circus recruit described by Ron as "damn cute," adding, "I saw him first." Chuck soon moved in, and for 14 years was part of the show, as well as becoming the lover of both Ron and Joy. Of their unorthodox relationship, Ron says, "I think the human race is very archaic. They need labels - which is very, very sad. When Chuck came into our life, the intimacy that we had spiritually...made us three of the most unique people."

Cat Dancers includes home video and footage of TV interviews with Ron, Joy and Chuck at the height of their popularity, offering glimpses of their personalities and fascinating insights into how they trained their animals. In one interview, Chuck explains that, as in nature, they would let an animal choose its caretaker by sitting in a room with a cub and letting it gravitate to one of them.

When Ron and Chuck wanted to increase the act's popularity by featuring a rare white tiger, Joy initially opposed the idea, because most of them are inbred, but eventually they obtained a Bengal tiger named Jupiter. The tiger chose Chuck to be his caretaker, despite Ron's desire to have Jupiter choose him. Though raised like their other cats, Jupiter was stubborn and "had an attitude." On Oct. 8, 1998, when their ranch was under construction, creating an unsettling environment for the animals, Chuck went to move Jupiter - who was uncaged at the time - to allow workmen access to part of the site. When one of his moccasins caught on a chain-link fence, Chuck tripped backwards, startling Jupiter, who instantly killed him.

While both Ron and Joy were devastated by Chuck's death, Joy took it especially hard, refusing to eat and dropping from 110 to 89 pounds in just a few weeks. She refused to see the animals, wanting only to sleep in bed. On Nov. 13, 1998, five weeks after Chuck's death, Ron convinced her to participate in their once-nightly ritual of feeding the animals. Entering one cage, she was greeted warmly by a cat who had been soaking in a tub of water. Wet and shaking, Joy then entered Jupiter's cage and in her frail state turned her back on the animal, violating the first rule of safety when entering a tiger's cage. According to Ron, Jupiter grabbed Joy by the throat in the blink of an eye and tossed her in the air, killing her instantly. After this second death, the authorities shot and killed the animal.

Within a period of five weeks, Ron had lost his lover, his wife and their beloved Jupiter. He subsequently placed his surviving cats at the Amazing Exotics animal sanctuary, where he visited them and taught classes to future animal trainers. In 2006, when his remaining two cats, Diva and Shercon, were faced with eviction from the ranch where they were boarded, Ron chose to put them to sleep rather than turn the animals over to someone else's care. "I'm not healed from all that," he says, though he's learned to cope. When he turns 80, Ron says he plans to move to a monastery in Thailand, "where monks live with tigers."

Cat Dancers is the directorial debut of Harris Fishman and is produced by Amanda Micheli, who co-produced and co-directed the HBO documentary "La Corona (The Crown)," which was nominated for an Oscar(r) earlier this year. Cat Dancers won the special jury award at the South By Southwest Film Festival and also screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Palm Springs Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival.

Cat Dancers is an HBO Documentary Films presentation in association with Cactus Three and Submarine Entertainment; executive producer, Silas Weir Mitchell; produced and directed by Harris Fishman; producer, Amanda Micheli; executive producers, Josh Braun, Julie Goldman, Krysanne Katsoolis and Caroline Stevens; editor, Alexis Spraic; director of photography, Amanda Micheli; original music by String Theory and Peter Salett. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

Joy Holiday with tiger

Cat Dancers