Thirty years ago, the man who calls himself Cat Dancer was a young, self-described introvert enthralled with computers and math, walking quietly through his family’s five acres of woods in North Monmouth, Maine. He rode his bike through the town’s empty streets past the smoky, brick expanse of Tex-Tech Industries-the world’s leading producer of tennis ball felt; a place where workers are liable to lose a few fingers in the machines. There wasn’t anyone else around who shared his interests of fantasy and science fiction.
After years of incessant bullying in public school, Cat enrolled in Wesleyan. He graduated with a degree in physics and moved back east to Portland to work for Visa as a Java programming contractor in what he calls “the bowels” of the company; a Dilbertesque job in a cubicle. It was the cubicle that drove him to dance.
June 29, 2004 marked the birth of the name Cat Dancer with his first post on the internet blog site LiveJournal. He needed to come up with a screen name and chose Cat Dancer in reference to the toy people used to play with kittens and cats. He was looking for a name that was fun and playful.
He had always been an admirer of dance and eventually attended some method workshops where he learned what are known as the “five rhythms”-flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. This led him to create what became the Cat Dance. Stuck in a cubicle, he was at a loss as to how and where he could perform other than the loud, drunken bar scene. He decided he would just take it outside.
Cat remembers being nervous at first, wondering if he would be arrested for disorderly conduct, mugged, or have his boom box stolen. He went out and bought the cheapest boom box he could find and set up at Monument Square in Portland without a costume. Cars stopped, people marveled, homeless men complimented him.
“Everyone was astounded to see people dancing outside,” he said. Eventually, he donned the costume he had worn as a disguise at the Arisia science fiction convention in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before the dance existed: a black spandex unitard, a massive, transparent cherry red cape which resembles the fictional frill of a Dilophosaurus and a black and red feathered Mardi Gras masquerade mask.
The Cat Dance is a wild, flaring, seemingly interpretive display of symmetrical reaching and grabbing and sleek movements. It is suave, twirling, a waltz with one’s self, and indeed, catlike. The improvisational, one-of-a-kind routine is accompanied by new age, pop, dance and video game music. It is an unabashed presentation of self expression reminiscent of a Chinese ribbon dance.
Combining his online handle, new dance and flashy costume, the fully-realized Cat Dancer was born. When discussing the inspiration and ideas behind this entity, he talks about the work of American cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud. He says that the less realistic and more cartoony a protagonist is, the more people are able to identify with the character.
“You could draw a Cat Dancer figure very quickly, like you could draw a cartoon character quickly. So if you wanted to draw a natural person, that would take longer, because then you would need to actually draw their features and so on,” he says.
He discusses the old French cartoon The Adventures of Tintin: “Tintin, the character, was drawn in a very cartoonish way, you know, just like a circle for a head and a couple of wiggles for the ruffle of his hair, sort of like a Peanuts cartoon,” he said. “The background was drawn very realistically, almost like a photograph; photorealism. And Scott McCloud points out that that combination makes it especially easy for people to identify themselves as being in the story.”
So here is the story: a thirty-something trapped and troubled computer programmer breaks out of the cubicle, into guise, and onto the streets. A cartoon among ordinary life, he dances his feelings away with streamers and loud songs in front of passersby and those who stop to watch. But Cat Dancer does not consider himself a performer. “People ask me, ‘When are you going to dance again?’ But I dance just for fun, when I feel like it,” he says. Upon first the words “eccentric” and “oddity” come to mind. The sight of him dancing and prancing to loud music in the the superheroesque outfit evokes the madness of a big city; he wouldn’t be the least bit out of place there. He has danced in Central Park, but Tommy’s Park in the Old Port is where he could be found most often. He would Cat Dance for hours on end, to praise and insults.
His website, features questions and answers, three “How To” pages [How to Be Cat Dancer, How to Dance the Cat Dance, How to Give Great Hugs], advice, insults, praise, and a page of writings which are separated into five categories: Ecstatic, Humorous, Dramatic, Scary and Sensual. Each of essay and poem reveals something about Cat Dancer that makes the character-not the performance-more understandable, more human.
Cat Dancer has entertained people at anime and science fiction conventions for the past four years. PortCon is an annual convention which takes place at the Sheridan Hotel in downtown Portland. At the 2008 convention, he made a presentation entitled “Creating Cat Dancer” which involved demonstrations, and eventually, audience participation.
“He has a very free-flowing, spontaneous dance. It’s very modern, very lyrical,” said Jenna Olijar, a friend of Cat Dancer who lives in Brunswick. She works at PortCon and minored in dance at the University of Southern Maine.
Olijar met Cat Dancer five years ago on LiveJournal through a mutual friend. They communicated online for a time until one day, after Jenna posted that she was moving and needed help, Cat Dancer showed up at her apartment. She had never seen a picture of him or any of his Cat Dancing videos.
“My first impression was he was very graceful,” she said. “The very first thing he moved was my rug and I remembered he made a dance out of it. He rolled it up and danced it around the room and down the stairs and into his car.”
On his blog, Cat Dancer talked about being on the road: “The driving itself is fairly tedious. I do get some books on tape and that’s a big help. I find myself driving lots of hours during the day. I’m eager to get to my next destination, whatever that may be.”
He is still learning about the life on the road. “Now I can go where I want,” he says. “Well, I’m not sure I’ve really figured out yet where exactly I want to go.”