Did You Say Free?
In the movie Out To Sea Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau get jobs as dance hosts on board a cruise ship. Dance hosts are dancers, usually gentlemen, who are compensated to come to dance events and partner ladies who don't have anyone to dance with. It's a role I've filled quite often in both official and unofficial capacities (the former for Arthur Murray and other area dance groups) and enjoyed. When I began teaching for Arthur Murray I began looking into programs like the one in the movie because, hey, why not get a free cruise. I found one such program through a company called Sixth Star and they were very excited when they got my application. I had a phone interview within a few hours only to be told, "You sound a little young. We generally don't accept gentlemen younger than their late-40's." I was disappointed. But then the interviewer said, "You sound perfect for our dance teacher program, however."
Being a traveling dance teacher, however, required traveling as a duo, with another female teacher. I wasn't on good enough terms with the other Arthur Murray teachers to ask them, and regardless the non-compete clause in our contracts would prohibit taking part in the program. Oh well. I shelved the idea until after leaving Arthur Murray in 2009, by which point Wynd and I were dating and her skills as a dancer were rapidly improving, and she'd even helped me teach my classes at Gen Con. I began looking for cruises.
We applied to several booking agencies, and while we were offered a few cruises they all required we fly to the departure points, sometimes at very high ticket costs. We turned them down, holding out for a ship departing a relatively local port, such as New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. A few others seemed like good fits but were snatched up by other instructors within hours of their being announced. Finally, To Sea With Z offered us a position on the Enchantment of the Seas sailing out of Baltimore. I booked it, then e-mailed Wynd to confirm her. Fortunately she could keep the commitment. We had our cruise set!
Now I do want to point out that it was not completely free (we do pay an administrative fee to To Sea With Z, onboard expenses, parking, excursions, etc.) but by and large we were getting an enormous discount. I was excited.
Day 1: Departure
We arrived at the Cruise Maryland port at 11:00 AM, about an hour and a half before boarding was scheduled to begin, and the lot was already packed. Progress through was slow but steady and, I must admit, efficient. Our bags got tagged and sent ahead to meet us in our stateroom, while we were checked in. There were some hiccups as we had special ticket information because of our guest instructor status but no problems resulted and we were on the ship by 12:30
We tried to meet the Activities Director, as we'd been asked to do upon boarding, but were told she wasn't available and that a letter in our stateroom would ask us to meet her at 4:30. Our stateroom would not be available until 3:30 so we decided to have lunch. We had our first meal in the Windjammer Cafe, the ship's casual buffet, as did all the other guests boarding. I'll get into the food in a bit, but it was an excellent meal. After eating we explored the ship, taking in the various lounges where we'd be teaching. Once our stateroom was available we unpacked, read the welcome letter from Katrina, the Activities Director, and went up to meet her.
The meeting was very light and easy. Katrina reminded me a great deal of Barbara, my boss at Arthur Murray. She gave us a great deal of discretion in how we planned the classes and what we wanted to teach, only asking that we not teach swing or salsa as the crew taught those at other events. She introduced us to Bob and Carol, the two other traveling instructors who would be hosting a series of lectures on the culture and history of the Caribbean and maritime in general. We did see that we'd been booked to teach twice as many classes as we'd been told about beforehand but given that I love teaching, we opted to simply enjoy the extra classes rather than make waves.
Katrina continued to show us around, revisiting the lounges we'd seen earlier and showing us how the sound system worked, as well as introducing us to Sachin who would be our point of contact for any technical questions throughout the cruise. After the tour we were released. I unpacked my bags (mine had been delivered later than Wynd's) and then we had some time until our assigned dinner hour. I did a bit of studying for my DVIDA exams (I'm proud to say that I did exam study every day aboard), then we went to one of the lounges to plan tomorrow's lessons, after which we went up to the library and read until dinner. For me, this downtime, this opportunity to just sit and relax, was the best part of the cruise. No pressure, no worries, just quiet time.
Dinner in the main dining room was great. We were seated with Bob and Carol, the other enrichment instructors, who'd traveled as instructors before and had plenty of good advice for us. The food was amazing. I had some type of soup, an absolutely incredible piece of sea bass, and a fruit pastry desert that was just delicious. After dinner we went out to the Centrum - the 5 story-tall foyer/lounge in the middle of the ship - where there was live music and a tiny dance floor, and did a bit of dancing before calling it an evening.
Sleep came easy.
Day 2: At Sea
This would be our first day teaching, two classes: one in the morning, one in the afternoon. We'd decided to teach merengue in both classes on the basis that it is the simplest dance and thus serves as a good confidence-builder while also introducing key concepts that would be utilized later on (i.e. when you take a step, put your foot down, don't just tap your foot. You always change weight so you never end up stepping twice in a row with the same foot). We decided to repeat the first half of the lesson, covering basics, and vary the second half of the class, covering right underarm turn variations in the morning and left underarm turn variations in the afternoon; this way people who missed the first class could still participate while those who attended both classes would get a refresher on the core material but still get some new stuff to play around with.
After breakfast up in Windjammer I'm pleased to say both classes went perfectly. When you have an entire class who's there purely to have fun, it makes them not only easy to teach but it also makes it fun to do so. The only part that unnerved me was in the morning we were teaching in the Centrum which not only meant a tiny floor, it also meant there were four stories of balconies above us packed shoulder-to-shoulder of people watching the lessons. A few joined in up on the balcony, but it did mean I had to be not just a teacher but a performer as well. Four years of dance teacher jokes came to the fore, and the students loved us.
After our morning class we had a bit of downtime which I used to do my study and a bit of reading. We had lunch in the main dining room where I had a very fresh and delicious Mexican corn and black bean salad. I read a little bit after lunch, and then we did the afternoon class. While our morning class had about twenty people participating and about a hundred watching, the afternoon class had about fifty people participating and about as many watching; audience had to be more determined, though, as this lounge was in a more remote part of the ship. The second class was, if I may say, one of the best classes I ever taught, and afterward we couldn't go twenty minutes in public on the ship without someone telling us how much they enjoyed the classes.
After class Wynd and I both put on swim suits and went up to the Solarium, the Enchantment's indoor/outdoor pool/jacuzzi area. We sunbathed and hot-tubbed and it was good. Dinner later was another sublime experience, and being a formal night I got to dust off my tux. Afterward we had a fun night dancing in the Centrum, and got some sleep.
Day 3: Cape Canaveral
As a port day we weren't scheduled for any classes. Wynd took an excursion to see Universal Studios (she wanted to see Harry Potter in specific) while I decided to just take an easy day to myself. After a leisurely breakfast I had a lounge to myself to do my exam study, which also meant I got in an hour of physical practice.
I did go ashore, mostly just to walk around. I followed a "nature trail" which spent more time meandering around motels than going through anything particularly natural, though I did get to walk along the beach. Eventually I made my way back to the ship, had a nice lunch, read a little bit, and spent the afternoon in a jacuzzi. I believe a mojito may have been involved. After another wonderful dinner in the main dining room Wynd called it an early evening, being tired from her day at Universal. I read a little bit in the Centrum, listening to the music, then went to bed.
Day 4: At Sea
This followed the routine of our previous at sea day: early breakfast, teach a great class (rumba), study, lunch, reading, teach another great class (waltz), and time in the solarium, this time with a margarita. Between lunch and our second class we also heard Bob and Carol's lecture on Key West.
Before dinner Wynd and I took in the ship's evening show, a song-and-dance number called, From Stage to Screen that was a revue of musicals that had also had film adaptations at one point. It was good but not great, and I was happy for our usual dinner and dancing afterward.
This was a routine I could get used to.
Day 5: Key West
From my point of view, the only thing you absolutely must do in Key West is go to the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. First, it's a great tour (the man had a fascinating life), but moreover it's also home to a colony of six-toed cats. Kitties!
If you haven't seen Wynd's pictures, go look at them now.
Also: there are chickens everywhere in Key West.
Following the Hemingway House we walked around a bit to do some shopping and get souvenirs. We had key lime pie in a place called Kermit's, recommended by Bob and Carol, and it was sublime. I got my dad a jar of key-lime mango chutney. We also purchased a few bottles of wine from a fruit wine shop. While I'd hoped to have lunch in Key West we opted to go back to the ship as there were no real vegetarian options for Wynd and paying $10 for a mediocre salad seemed a poor choice compared to the high-quality meal that awaited us on the ship and was already part of our ticket.
Following lunch we had more time in the solarium (I love jacuzzis! I love heated pools!) and reading. Later we attended the evening show which was a voice impressionist who sang and did comedy. The singing was good, the comedy less so, though on the whole I enjoyed the show. Soon it was dinner, we had more dancing in the lounges, and then sleep.
It was evening and it was morning and that was the fifth day.
Day 6: Nassau
Woke up early to get in my practice for the day, then we hopped off ship for my only excursion: a trip to a private beach to enjoy the sun, the sand, and something fruity supplemented by much rum.
Not bad, but... enough. It was cool, not cold, but not warm or hot, and overcast. That said, I had an alright time sitting under an overhang enjoying the sights and sound of the ocean, while Wynd went on an underwater photography expedition. Plus, rum is good in all kinds of weather. It did eventually clear up a little. Wasn't what I'd wanted - certainly not what I'd paid the excursion fees for - but that was hardly the cruise line's fault and I did enjoy myself. No regrets.
The sun had come out by the time we got back to Nassau. Wynd and I did a little shopping, then rejoined the ship. There was a good show that evening, a magician, but because it was standing-room-only we weren't able to see it. We had a quiet afternoon instead and I finished my first book (Supervillains and Philosophy), enjoyed a great dinner, and finished with some excellent dancing.
Day 7: CocoCay
CocoCay is Royal Caribbean's own private island. It is a beautiful sun-drenched island and is exactly what I wanted on this trip: to lie in the sun drinking something fruity enough to get me laughed at back home. Granted, I got a sunburn in the process, but even so: worth it.
Terri Ann went ashore before me because she wanted to go snorkeling. I took my time with breakfast, did my dance practice, and came about two hours after her. We met up and took a walk on a nature trail around the whole island, which is only a mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide. When we got back to the main beach we had a barbecue lunch, then she went back to snorkeling while I napped and roasted. I woke up redder than Superman's cape. It's probably the farthest I've ever traveled for a nap and the most I've ever paid in both a monetary and personal cost, and was totally worth it.
On board the ship we saw the evening's performance of Voices 3, a pop/opera group that did some really amazing work. Listen to the demos on their website and see them if you can. We had yet another incredible dinner, did a bit of dancing, and went to bed, ready for our next day of classes.
Day 8: At Sea
We knew this night was going to be the big-band night so we decided to focus our classes on ballroom dances, especially since both of them would be on the ship's largest dance floor. We taught tango in the morning and several of the people whom we'd seen around the ship and had been asking if we thought they were capable learning ended up coming. Teaching a student who didn't believe they were capable of learning is one of the most rewarding experiences I have as a teacher, so this was a true treat. One of the students asked to do leg flicks, so we modified the lesson at the last minute to accommodate the request.
We had our usual relaxing morning/lunch/afternoon before our afternoon class where we taught foxtrot, the big-bandiest of big-band music (except maybe for swing but that's more a matter of any given band's style). It was a fun class and people did a great job. We took the afternoon and evening quietly - Wynd napped - rather than see the show. Dinner was the lobster and prime rib night and, I must admit, neither is one of my favorite dishes so I felt a bit let down. Afterward Wynd took another nap to stay energized while I read, then we went to the (late-night) big-band party. We got in a few good dances and called it a night.
Day 9: At Sea
Ah the last day. Our last classes, too. We responded to personal requests from some of the dancers we'd met and planned our last two classes to do two of our favorite dances, but also two of the hardest.
In the morning we taught hustle. Now I did decide to keep things simple and used introductory four-count disco hustle (rather than syncopated 3-count Latin hustle). It took a bit longer to get through the basics, but most people really got it and had a great time. In the afternoon we did west coast swing, something I'd been both anticipating and dreading, but again we went slow, simplified a few things, and people had it by the end of the class! I can't say how proud I was of them, or of us.
After classes we began to pack up our cabin as much as possible. We arranged tips (going half-again above the recommended tips; the service we'd received was impeccable) and had our last dinner. Terri Ann went to bed after dinner, while I attended a line-dance game show that was actually incredibly fun, watched a bit of karaoke, then popped into the Centrum to say goodbye to our dance friends. Finally, it was time for bed.
Day 10: Debarkation
Debarkation was handled very smoothly. We were off the ship by 10:30 AM with all of our luggage. Customs went quite quickly and it was relatively easy getting on the road. I dropped Terri Ann off and headed home, already excited for our next cruise over the Christmas holiday.
Overall: This was an amazing experience, both teaching and the cruise itself. I can't say enough good things about Royal Caribbean. The food was amazing, the service impeccable, the ship beautiful, and everything was handled quite professionally. If you're looking to go on a cruise, you're putting yourself in excellent hands.