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Bill Coleman looked nervously at his watch. He just had time to catch a bus from downtown Lisbon, Portugal, to the harbor, board the MTS Odysseus cruise ship, shower, dress and grab a quick dinner before the evening's first show, when it would be time to get to work.

MTS Odysseus
Royal Olympic Cruiseline's Odysseus
Photo courtesy: Royal Olympic Cruises, Ltd.
Some work. If the ladies were willing, Coleman's task was getting them to dance. It sounds easy. Pack along a pair of dancing shoes, a couple of spiffy blazers, some finely pressed shirts and slacks plus a tuxedo or two. And, once aboard the cruise ship, show up at the evening shows, smile, make conversation and get out on the dance floor.

Ah, the life of a dance host.

Out to Sea, last summer's comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, exposed movie goers to the sometimes Hollywood-imagined life of dance hosts, who are hired by cruise lines to make evenings entertaining for typically large numbers of single women.

It sounds easy -- and romantic and glamorous. It can be, but often it isn't.

Coleman, Ken Feller and Ted Parker, the trio of dance hosts on the Royal Olympic Cruises 12-day cruise from London, England, to Lisbon, were having a difficult time finding dance partners on this particular voyage. But unlike the movie, they weren't looking for wealthy potential partners. They genuinely like to be social and, even more, to dance.

Dance Hosts
Bill, Ken, Ted (l-r)
Photo: Lee Juillerat

Someone To Dance With

"Women love it. They've got somebody to dance with," said Feller of the role he and other hosts perform. "A lot of women won't go on a cruise without a dance host."

"The only time you have a problem is when you have a lot of women who like to dance," explained Coleman. "I try to rotate. I don't try to dance with the same lady one time after another. You'll know the ladies who really want to dance. You have to be in control."

"All the women," believes Coleman, "have different personalities. They want attention. Some men don't understand that, they don't see the urgency when they're alone, when they sit out three dances in a row."

Photo Courtesy: NCL
"The rationale is the women feel confident around us," added Parker. "When you get a lady on the dance floor it's quick assessment time. I'm trying to find as quickly as possible her level of proficiency and then try to dance to that level of proficiency, and see if there's a kind of dance they like to do. Do they do the bolero, the cha-cha."

Although the policy varies among cruise lines, with Royal Olympic the hosts are responsible for transportation to and from their homes to New York City. Royal Olympic pays for travel from New York to the ship and back, if the host signs up for a certain number of weeks. Most lines provide hosts with room and board plus a small stipend, but the hosts must provide their own clothing, such as tuxedos, pants, jackets coats, shoes and ties.

"It's not a money-making job. It costs you," said Feller.

Money isn't the prime concern for hosts like Parker, 75, who has been a dance host for three years. Until an illness prevented his late wife from ballroom dancing, getting out on the floor had been a favorite pastime. Following her death, Parker's daughter suggested he contact cruise lines about the dance host program.

"I had not danced any ballroom dancing for a long period of time so I had to get back in step," said Parker, who is retired and lives in Missoula, Montana.

Coleman, 56, lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he works 40 hours a week as an interior designer for Home Depot and spends several nights a week as a host, or "extra man," at dance studios. His extra-hours job has resulted in expense paid trips to social events and dance competitions, plus small parts in movies like "Stella" with Bette Midler, "Traces of Red" with Jim Belushi, and seven episodes of the Burt Reynolds television series "Stroker Ace."

Travel Opportunities

For the past two years Coleman, who is divorced, has spent vacations as a dance host on cruises along the European coast and through the Greek islands. He hopes future excursions will include voyages to the Baltic Ocean and Black Sea.

"I think it's exciting because I'd never traveled that much," explained Coleman of the lure. "I like to see and do things. The extra benefit is meeting people. It's a nice way to do a vacation, yet be working and still have a good time. If I was on my own, I wouldn't meet so many nice people."

Lisbon, Portugal
Photo: Lee Juillerat

Feller, 58, was looking for an outlet after he retired as a programmer for IBM more than five years ago and, not long after that, was divorced.

"Danced all my life," said Feller, who lives in Boulder, Colorado. "I learned early in life that if a guy could dance he could get girls. That was my main motivation." He still enjoys dancing and meeting women, but that's no longer his main motivation.

"You've got to be a perfect gentlemen. Our responsibilities are to be available for dancing. Everything is above board. No one-on-one liaisons, otherwise we're just summarily dropped off ship at the next port. I'm sure some guys think it's a good way to meet rich women, but I don't think most have that motive."

"It's a way to go on vacation. See the world. Dance. Meet people. Do things I enjoy doing. If I meet someone who I develop a relationship with, that's just cream on the cake. Each different line has different ports of call. And it's nice to go on different lines and compare them," added Feller, who has hosted for various cruise lines. "Sometimes you go because of the itinerary."

Brussels Painter
Painter in Brussels, Belgium
Photo: Lee Juillerat
Brussels Flower Market
Brussels, Belgium
Photo: Lee Juillerat

This cruise's itinerary included stops in Amsterdam, Brugge, Southampton, Le Havre, St. Malo, Bordeaux, La Coruna with side trips to Brussels, Bath, Stonehenge, Paris, Mont Saint Michel, Santiago de Compostela and other cities.

Over more than 200 days at sea, Feller has sailed in the Caribbean, Panama Canal, most of South America, Hawaii, Mediterranean, Baltic and crossed the Atlantic.

"They're all nice," said Feller, who imagines more ports of call. "I'd like to see the Orient, Australia, the Black Sea, Alaska."

Le Brugge, Amsterdam
Photo: Lee Juillerat
Stonehenge, England
Photo: Lee Juillerat

Job For A Single Man

Fellers believes a dance host should be single because, "It's kind of hard on relationships. You're going off for a month or more and the woman at home knows your sole responsibility is to keep other women happy."

"I think it would be very difficult for a married guy to go out every night without his wife," echoed Coleman.

"The people who come on these assignments are cautioned that this is not a romantic service," said Parker. "You do not come aboard with the notion that you are seeking. That's on the taboo list. That's not what we're here for."

This night in Portugal, like other nights on the cruise, Parker, Coleman and Feller served as dance partners for women -- widows, divorcees, married but traveling alone or, sometimes, with husbands who don't like to dance.

"A couple of years ago, if you'd said I'd be doing this, I'd have said you're crazy," laughed Feller.

"You can actually make a cruise memorable," Coleman explained between dances. "Some women haven't dance for years, and they're excited to have the opportunity."

There's sometimes a special reward. "The greatest," chuckled Coleman, "is when they whisper, 'You dance the best.'"

Lee Juillerat
Lee is a freelance writer-photographer who lives in Southern Oregon, where he is the regional editor for the Klamath Falls Herald and News. In addition to having written two books about Crater Lake National Park, he has published stories and photographs in a variety of books, magazines and newspapers.

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