Enjoy the Dance
I’ve been on an m/m kick lately, and when this book was offered for review, I signed up for it based on little more than the book blurb, cover (it’s pretty great) and a nagging suspicion I was familiar with the author. After a bit of digging, I discovered Ms. Cullinan is the author of a book often recommended to me – Fever Pitch – so I was optimistic. Now that I’ve read it? I’m on the fence. Enjoy the Dance is less focused on the romance between its main characters than on the politics associated with overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota in 2012/2013. It also touches on child abuse, poverty and immigration law. Though it features a dance teacher and some scenes take place in a dance studio, the title is more of a metaphor about the relationship between the main characters than about actual dancing. Reader – this book is dark. If you read romance to escape – as I do – it probably isn’t for you. Though the writing is strong, this book is heavy on politics and light on romance.
When Spenser Harris arrives home one evening and discovers a bruised and bloody teenager (Duon) on his doorstep, he doesn’t recognize him but offers shelter anyway. Duon is reluctant to accept this stranger’s help, but he’s hungry, tired and hurt – and his friend (Spenser’s neighbor, Tomás Jimenez) isn’t home. Spenser convinces Duon to accept his help, and slowly manages to coax the story of what happened out of him. Duon was assaulted by his cousins after they discovered him kissing another boy. Like them, he lives with his grandmother; when she found out what caused his injuries, instead of sympathizing with him, she kicked him out. Tomás (his dance teacher) is one of the few people he knows and trusts; it’s why he’s come to the Jimenez apartment hoping for shelter.
As it turns out, Spenser is the ideal person to help Duon. A gay kindergarten teacher who’s closeted at his private Catholic elementary school, Spenser spent most of his childhood being shuffled between foster homes until he was adopted by a lesbian couple when he was a teenager. After graduating from high school he spent time homeless on the streets before straightening out his own life and becoming a teacher. He knows the challenges a black, homeless LGBT teen like Duon faces, and wants to help him. As Duon shares his history, Spenser calms him until he falls asleep. He keeps an eye on the apartment next door, and when he spots Tomás, motions him over.
Tomás is exhausted when he arrives home but curious about what his handsome (but quiet) neighbor has to say. Hoping it doesn’t have anything to do with his (Tomás ‘) parents, he’s upset when Spenser reveals Duon asleep in the apartment and the circumstances that led him to be there. After they discuss Duon’s situation and Spenser tells him he’s required by law to contact the Department of Human Services (as a teacher, he’s a mandatory reporter), Tomás panics. Spenser still hasn’t explained why he’s so willing to help Duon, and Tomás is reluctant to trust him – but he also has no desire to bring DHS this close to his own doorstep.
Tomás’s parents are undocumented illegal immigrants from Mexico and he lives in fear of their being deported. He works three jobs to support them and the three children his reckless sister frequently drops off when she’s unwilling/unable to take care of them. The children and their mother have recently drawn the attention of the DHS, and Tomás fears any additional attention will only lead the department to his parents – and their illegal status. Frustrated and angry about what’s happened to Duon and his inability to help or fix the situation (his work/life situation is already overwhelming) – and what he assumes is Spenser’s sanctimonious overreaching, Tomás calls his closest friends, Ed and Laurie (featured in Dance With Me), owners of the dance studio where he works, and Vicky, the director of Halcyon Center – a shelter Duon’s stayed at before. All of them know about Duon’s domestic situation. When they arrive and assess the situation, they convince Tomás to trust his neighbor and his intentions. Tomás relents, Spenser contacts DHS and these three strangers take the first steps of a dance that eventually ends to Tomás and Spenser becoming a couple.
We learn a lot of significant information about Spenser, Tomás (and Duon) in the first few chapters, but the remainder of the book deals with the relationship between Spenser and Tomás that unfolds as they work together to provide a stable home life for Duon. After that first chaotic night, Spenser petitions to become Duon’s guardian, and in the process of caring for him, falls in love with Tomás. Spenser has always been a loner and his childhood prevented him from forming loving, lasting relationships with partners, friends and co-workers. Tomás has always been surrounded by love, but the burden of taking care of his family and working all the time has prevented him from having a relationship with another man. He’s also afraid of revealing his parents’ illegal status to anyone he doesn’t trust. Ms. Cullinan uses Tomás’s job as a dance teacher as the bridge that brings them together.
Spenser’s very real fear of dancing in public provides the catalyst for late night private dance lessons with Tomás at the dance studio – and eventually much more. The ‘dance’ in Enjoy the Dance is a metaphor for much of what takes place between Spenser and Tomás – and in Minnesota at this time. These two dance around each other and their attraction until they finally find a rhythm as a couple and begin to fashion a life together. They find solutions to many of the problems plaguing them as individuals once they start to support each other and ‘enjoy the dance’ as partners. If Ms. Cullinan had simply focused the narrative on them, I think this story would have been more successful.
My biggest problem with the book is that it is more of a political statement than a romance. While I’m personally sympathetic to the POV of the characters, Ms. Cullinan’s sermonizing detracts from the emotional/romantic relationship. I don’t need to know the intricacies of the law, or the politics of Minnesota, to sympathize with these characters’ very real desire to be together and potentially married in the future. Or to want the same for their friends Ed and Laurie – who seem to pop up in the story whenever politics come up (often) or when Tomás and Spenser need a problem solved. (Really, their problem solving skills, wise counsel and helpful legal/financial connections start to border on the ridiculous after a while). The politics, the fairy godfathers, Spenser’s bigoted boss – they all detract from the very real (and beautiful) relationships Ms. Cullinan has written (Spenser and Tomás, the Jimenez family, Ed and Laurie, Duon and Spenser/Tomás, Duon and Ed/Laurie)… they form the heart of the story and are the best (too few) parts of the book.
Enjoy the Dance was my first tango (waltz?) with Ms. Cullinan; I’m hoping our second dance finds us more in sync.