Some of you might have seen and remember the 1997 romantic comedy Out to Sea, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. For those who haven’t, the basic plot is that Jack Lemmon plays a widower (Herb Sullivan) who is talked into being a dance host on a cruise ship by his con artist brother-in-law (Charlie Gordon) played by Walter Matthau. While on the cruise, Herb meets a lady, Gloria DeHaven, (Vivian) with whom he reluctantly falls in love. At the same time, Charlie is hustling a lady, Dyan Cannon, (Liz) whom he thinks is wealthy and a good catch. Charlie doesn’t realize Liz is hustling him for the same reason.
The movie was certainly enjoyable, but hardly Oscar-worthy. In fact, it perpetuated some myths and misperceptions about dance hosts that do not serve those mostly noble folks well. For example, the reality is most cruises are from 7 to 14 days. I guess it’s possible to fall in love with someone in that time frame, but unlikely, in my experience.
Labour of Love
Having said that, I have a confession to make. I did fall in love in 14 days—with cruising! I was a cruise ship dance host during my work vacations for about five years in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After taking several years of ballroom dance lessons, and participating in a few dance competitions, I was offered an opportunity to dance host on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. However, the offer was based on a requirement to undertake some training which included a focus on appropriate behaviour and dinner table manners, among other things. For this particular agent and trainer, the training was a requirement even if you thought you already had appropriate behaviour and reasonable table manners.
Following training, I contacted an agency in Florida that arranged dance hosts for cruise ships. The conversation was essentially an interview to determine if I had sufficient dance experience, a reasonable character and the ability to carry on a conversation. My first cruises were two, one-week, back-to-back trips from New York to Bermuda and return. The arrangement was that I would make my way to and from New York; the cruise line would take care of my accommodations while on the cruise, including meals and a shared cabin with another dance host.
Myth #1: Dance hosts are there to provide “companionship” to single, female passengers.
While dance hosts were expected to dance with both single and married women who might be interested in dancing, they were prohibited from visiting a guest’s cabin or getting otherwise romantically involved with a guest. The penalty for “fraternization”, if caught, could have been as severe as being removed from a ship at any port destination on the ship’s itinerary and being told to find one’s own way home. I shared a cabin with several different dance hosts over several cruises and only one believed the myth and acted accordingly.
Myth # 2: Dance hosts have all expenses paid.
My arrangement was always to pay for my return airfare to and from the cruise departure port city and any other expenses such as taxis or a hotel room before and after the cruise before returning home. Free shore excursions were sometimes available to dance hosts if the cruise line anticipated a large number of guests on specific excursions. A dance host could be requested to accompany a tour to help with guests, particularly those who might require assistance. In that case, the excursion might be offered to the dance host for free. Otherwise, dance hosts were required to pay for excursions just like other passengers. One dance host acquaintance, also from Winnipeg, participated in a 28-day cruise. In that case, the cruise line paid his airfare, but he was also expected to staff the ship’s library when not involved in dance hosting duties. It left him little free time.
Myth # 3 : Dance hosting is an easy gig.
That could not be further from the truth. Dance hosts needed to be available for “sail away” parties when the ship left the port, other deck parties that might occur, dance lessons held during the cruise as partners to unaccompanied guests, and present where dancing occurred anywhere on the ship generally from around 8:00 p.m. to after midnight. This could have dance hosts “working” about six or more hours a day dancing, every day except the day the ship docked. With some ships, dance lessons were held for passengers who preferred not to go ashore for excursions. This meant dance hosts had to be available at those times as well. During the evenings, dance hosts were also expected to wear a “uniform”, purchased at their own cost, comprising a blue blazer, complementary tie, white or pastel blue shirt, and white pants. On “formal” nights, of which there might be two or three in a 14-day cruise, dance hosts were expected to wear tuxedos.
Myth # 4: Dance hosts have to be trained dancers.
While the Walter Matthau character’s complete inability to dance in the “Out to Sea” movie is an exaggeration, several of my dance host cabinmates did not have anything more than basic dance skills nor had they taken any dance lessons. During my first cruise, my dance host cabin mate knew how to foxtrot, but that was about it. It meant regardless of the dance music being played (waltz, rumba, cha cha, etc.), he danced a foxtrot.
Myth # 5: Dance hosts should be a relatively youthful middle-age (e.g. in one’s 40’s—see Myth # 1).
However, most of the dance hosts with whom I “worked” were older than me, with one exception, and I was in my 50’s at the time. The largest number of dance hosts on one ship with whom I dance hosted was four and I was the youngest. My roommate on that cruise was 81 and the two other dance hosts, who also shared a cabin, were in their 70’s.
I worked for both Norwegian and Celebrity cruise lines over approximately five years. On a few occasions, I was the only dance host on the ship and was assigned my own cabin, but mostly accommodations were shared. One of my dance host cabinmates, Simon, age 65, told me he had won an “iron man” award and had once walked across the United States. I was tempted to believe him. I would regularly tire by about 1:00 a.m. from dancing, but it wasn’t unusual for Simon to saunter in about 3:00 a.m. on several nights in succession, completely soaked with sweat from dancing. Clearly, he had a good time on that cruise. When we left the ship at the end of it, there were several young ladies calling to him and waving goodbye, presumably ones he’d met on the dance floor.
The southern, eastern and western Caribbean, Mexico and the Panama Canal were regular cruise outings for me, but two of the most memorable cruises were the Baltic Sea and Hawaii.
The Baltic cruise occurred in late August/early September 2001. It started in Amsterdam, and made its way through Aarhus, Copenhagen, Tallin, Helsinki, Oslo, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and back to Amsterdam over two weeks. During that cruise, 9/11 occurred in the United States which, of course, immediately started a rumour that terrorists were targeting cruise ships.
The most memorable stop on that trip was St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg, the cruise line wanted a dance host to help passengers on and off the excursion bus to Catherine Palace, a beautiful facility known as the official summer residence of the Romanovs. Our tour guide there was an English-speaking Russian who appeared to understand English, but it became apparent when ship passengers asked him questions that he didn’t really understand as he was unable to answer most of them. We began to realize the English patter he was providing was probably memorized.
After touring the inside of the Palace, the excursion group began to tour the large grounds which took a long time and covered a considerable distance. About halfway through the grounds tour, a few older guests were unable to continue and stopped at a central resting place. The tour guide assured them the group would be back that way on our return to the bus, but that didn’t happen. About three-quarters of the excursion ended up back at the bus with the other quarter strung out along the way. After the stragglers had been rounded up over an hour later, we were able to return to the ship, but with some seriously annoyed passengers.
The Hawaiian islands were thoroughly enjoyable. The ship started in O’ahu and visited Maui, Kauai, and the big island of Hawaii. The trip through the islands did not take long overall as they are relatively close together. However, because of the Jones Act, which does not allow foreign-flagged ships to go directly from one US port to another US port, our Norwegian-flagged ship had to sail to a non-US port before it returned to O’ahu.
On this cruise, although Ensenada, Mexico was a common destination, the ship’s Captain chose Kiribati, an independent island nation in the central Pacific Ocean on an atoll. Although it was the end of the 20th century, the island was still quite primitive reminiscent of perhaps the late 19th or early 20th century. Passengers had to be transported to and from the island by tender. A few of the local children had an opportunity to visit the ship to perform singing and dancing. They were given ice cream and a ride in the ship’s elevator, both of which seemed to be a new experience for them. Following the visit to Kiribati, the ship returned to O’ahu. Of the 12 days of the trip, most were spent sailing to and from Kiribati. However, the “side” trip was worth it as Kiribati was just as interesting to me as the Hawaiian islands.
As a result of dance hosting, I had an opportunity to visit numerous locations I would likely not have visited otherwise. The cost of cruises for me during that time was about 50% of the regular cost in exchange for being a dance host, but the experience of cruising was pleasurable enough to capture my interest and cruising has become a regular vacation for my wife and me once or twice a year for the past 15 years (pre-pandemic).
Would I do it again as a younger, single man…in a rumba beat! However, there don’t appear to be dance hosts on the cruises we’ve taken in recent years. It may be a thing of the past.
For those of you contemplating a cruise, I’d highly recommend it. On some ships, it’s like living in a five-star floating hotel, and guests are treated extremely well, although there are certainly ships that are older now and less than five-star. Further, many of the ships these days are so large with such good stabilizers it’s difficult to tell you are moving sometimes and there are few waves to contend with if seasickness is a concern. The food is superb, prepared by well-trained chefs. The onboard entertainment alone is usually worth the price of the cruise, and the exotic places visited will create lifelong memories.
Another most enjoyable contribution to our Celebration of (Retired) Life series from frequent contributor, Dale Watts. Always a pleasure, Dale!
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Great reading your post, Dale .While I knew of your dance host experiences your post gave much more detail .
Thanks for sharing
Love the article, Dale. You continue to surprise. Material for another Fringe play perhaps?
What amazing experiences you have had Dale. I have never been on a cruise but you have definitely sparked my interest. Thanks for an interesting and educational article.
You have led such an interesting life Dale. I have been on several cruises but can’t say I have seen a dance host. I enjoyed reading about your experience.