In the 1997 comedy "Out to Sea," Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon get free cruises on Holland America's Westerdam by agreeing to serve as dance partners for the widowed or unmarried ladies on the ship.
Have you ever wondered about those charming, (mostly) silver-haired gentlemen in the blazers or tuxedos who dance the cruises away with the ladies? Several lines use them, but they won't take just anyone.
Lauretta Blake, president of The Working Vacation, Inc. (firstname.lastname@example.org.), is in charge of placing more than a hundred Gentlemen Hosts with 10 cruise lines. Blake formerly worked in the enrichment program for Royal Cruise Line when it created the cruise industry's first host program in 1982. According to her, here's what it takes to be accepted:
"We look for single men, 45 to 70 years old," says Blake, "who are still young at heart. Carefully screened, they must be sociable, have excellent manners, and not only enjoy dancing but mingling with passengers, as well, for shipboard activities and touring ashore. They must be interactive, because they also provide a P.R. role for the cruise line."
But that's the easy part. Once a volunteer has submitted an application and the required personal reference materials, she said, he must satisfactorily complete a professional Dance Review evaluation. After all, the ability to dance and dance well is of paramount importance. Applicants must be able to distinguish between and perform all the standard dances, such as FoxTrot, Cha-Cha, Swing, Waltz, and Rumba. In addition, they must be able to execute a minimum of five Bronze (basic) Level steps in American-Social style and/or International style. They should also be able to add some other varieties that are sometimes danced onboard, like Tango, Two-Step, Samba, Quick Step, Merengue, Salsa, Viennese Waltz and Polka.
But that's not all! They also must be able to execute correctly eight or more steps and patterns for each of the standard dances.
After attending a general and an individual meeting with Blake and her staff, the gentlemen read over an extensive Guidelines Booklet of their responsibilities, then sign formal agreements pledging to adhere to the established rules for hosting. Among the requirements: They must provide a written biography for shipboard use; sign an agreement not to become romantically involved with passengers; purchase emergency evacuation insurance; assemble a proper wardrobe; and cooperate with The Gentlemen Host (tm) program by providing written and verbal feedback to help insure the program's continued level of satisfaction.
The volunteers, says Blake, come from all walks of life. They are widowed or divorced, retired or semi-retired. Many have backgrounds in business, law, finance, travel, medicine, education or the military. And while romance is discouraged, sometimes friendships are made and nurtured after the cruise.
Though the gentlemen get a free cruise, they do not receive a salary. In fact-and it comes as a surprise to some--they actually pay $28.00 per day onboard to Gentlemen Hosts (tm) as a placement fee for the privilege of being a dance host.
But there are perks, of course. They have regular passenger cabin accommodations, not the more cramped crew quarters. (On Cunard, they have a private cabin; they share on most other lines.) They have beverage and laundry allowances and enjoy the company of all passengers, not just women, in the dining rooms. Some lines give a gratuities allowance, but hosts cannot accept tips from the passengers.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to being a dance host is the opportunity to travel the world and meet new friends. However, Blake limits the amount of time a host may cruise, because she doesn't want them to burn out.
Blake and The Working Vacation (tm) Inc./Gentlemen Host (r) program currently provide hospitality on all sailings of Cunard (except charters); Delta Queen Steamboat Co.; Orient Lines; Radisson Seven Seas' Mariner and Navigator and occasionally on the Diamond; Seabourn (except charters); and World Explorer's S/S Universe Explorer's Alaskan cruises. Hosts are provided for Holland America and Silversea Cruises only on selected dates and destinations.
"Wanna-be" dance hosts may also apply to The Merry Widows, (800-313-7245 or travel@AAAsouth.com). Started in 1977 by Phyllis Zeno, currently editor-in-chief of "AAA Going Places," Zeno arranges cruises throughout the year on different ships for ladies who love to dance. For each four women she takes a host, and fills out the dance cards in advance, so each woman dances one-fourth of the time. The men are also rotated at the dinner tables. They pay nothing, not even their airfare.
Zeno will be hosting her 200th Merry Widows cruise on Costa's new Atlantica from New York on April 27, 2001.
Crystal Cruises, which attracts the affluent and highly-educated, also has a program it refers to as "ambassador hosts." With 80 gentlemen participating, between four and eight sail on each cruise.
Providing gentlemen dance hosts can only enhance and increase the popularity of cruising for single ladies. As the saying goes: "It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it."