Boys on the Boat : Cruise Hosts Play Fred Astaire to Solo Women Who Want to Dance the Night Away

While cruising the Panama Canal in 1982, Dick Revnes noticed groups of older solo women sitting around the ship's dance lounge wistfully watching couples glide by.

Encouraged by his wife, Revnes asked one of the women to dance. As she waltzed in his arms, she started to cry. When Revnes quipped that he knew he was a bad dancer but hadn't thought he was bad enough to drive a partner to tears, the woman, about 70, told him he was the first man to ask her to dance since her husband died 10 years before. He had made her cruise, she said, and she would never forget him.

Nor did Revnes, the late president of Royal Cruise Lines, forget her. That night he decided to create a program that provided a core of dance partners for unattached women passengers who want to participate in couples' dancing.

Revnes's "cruise hosts" would be single, retired and over 45--in effect, peers of the usually widowed or divorced mature women. In addition to Fred Astaire duties, the hosts would function as dinner companions to groups of women, assist them on shore excursions, and be available for couples shots when the ship's photographer took aim. The host would be a kind of nautical knight in shining dress shoes.

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Now, 12 years after Revnes launched his host program, every cruise aboard Royal's three ships includes six to 12 hosts, who range in age from 50 to 80. At least seven other cruise lines have some form of host program: Royal Viking Line, Cunard, Regency Cruises, Delta Queen Steamboat Co., Crystal Cruises, Holland America Line and American Hawaii Cruises. The program is so popular with unattached women age 50-plus--who make up 10% to 25% of many cruises, far outnumbering single older men aboard--that more lines are contemplating adding hosts system-wide or to selected sailings.

"I wouldn't think of booking a cruise on a ship that didn't have hosts," said Grace Pearl Adams, a 68-year-old widow who has been cruising for 10 years and tried her first hosted sailing two years ago aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2.

"I love to dance, and the host program allows me to have a ready dance partner but otherwise be independent throughout my trip," said Adams, who usually takes at least one long cruise a year. "Before hosts came along, I had to just sit in the audience and watch everyone else dance. I felt so isolated, so frustrated. Now I can be a full participant in the dancing part of the cruise as well as all the other parts, and that's certainly added to the joy of cruising."

While hosted cruises are intended to serve active women who, but for a partner, could have danced all night, the program also is a boon for gregarious men who relish dancing and traveling. Recruited directly by the cruise line or booked through an outside agency (which generally charges the men a fee for each assignment), hosts are not paid for their services. Instead, they receive a free cruise, including accommodations (usually shared with another host), a bar and laundry allowance, and in most cases, round-trip air tickets to embarkation and disembarkation ports. They are expected to show up for duty with a tuxedo, white dinner jacket, natty sportswear and loads of energy--since they could be dancing three to seven hours a day, with little time to sit out a dance if demand is strong from the women on board.

"Hosting proved the perfect thing for me to do after retiring," said Ed Fanelli, a 70-year-old former telecommunications executive from Manhattan, N.Y. Just before he was about to retire in 1986, he read about Royal Cruise Lines' host program in an article in Modern Maturity magazine.

"I thought I could dance well enough, but I'm a bachelor, and I was nervous about all the social pressure to entertain all those women," he recalled. (On his debut assignment there were 180 solo women and six hosts.)

"The ladies turned out to be so appreciative. I got very comfortable very fast," said Fanelli, who has been a host on 60 Royal cruises. "I remember one woman, two weeks shy of her 80th birthday, who just couldn't believe all these guys were asking her to dance. At the end of the cruise she signed up then and there for another sailing, saying she had planned to give all her money to her children, but was having so much fun she'd decided to spend it on herself."

Tony Laudari, 70, a retired banker from Santa Rosa, Calif., who has hosted aboard 100 Royal cruises, said he looks out for women with special needs. "On one cruise to Europe we had two elderly ladies in wheelchairs who wanted to explore Rome but couldn't do the regular shore excursion there because they couldn't keep up," he said. "They asked me to help them, and we rented a limousine and toured on our own, with the limousine driver and me wheeling them around the Vatican. It was so heart-wrenching to see how much pleasure they got and how grateful they were. We became great pals."

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Pals is the operative--and imperative--word when it comes to cruise hosting, where the unequivocal motto is: Dancing, not romancing. Hosts are expected to spread their attentions around to all the women in their realm, and gently brush aside any intimate advances. No entering ladies' cabins (even for the most chaste reasons), no rendezvous in the wee hours, no strolling off a deux during shore excursions. Any violations of the platonic code could see a host unceremoniously booted off the ship at the next port without even a plane ticket home.

"It can get pretty dicey with really aggressive women who want to monopolize all your dance time--and sometimes more," said Fanelli. "On my last cruise, my phone rang at 4 a.m., and it was a woman saying the ship was rolling and she needed company. I had to say sorry, I just couldn't do it, and if she was feeling sick she needed to call the ship's doctor. You have to handle those situations with kid gloves, but be real firm about what's not OK."

Even if the cruise staff isn't always vigilant for offenders, the women often are, said Laudari. "Some of those ladies go around with score cards, pointing out when you're dancing too much with one woman--and not enough with them," he said. That's not to say that romances haven't been born at sea--but the deal is, a host may only contact a woman (and only at her bidding) after the cruise.

Oscar Centi, 68, of Palm Springs, met his wife Donna, 58, in 1989 when he was a host on a two-week South America cruise on Royal's Crown Odyssey. Donna was cruising with her sister, a travel agent, trying to put her life back together after the death of her husband.

"I wasn't looking for a mate, and Oscar and I didn't even click at first," she recalled. "I thought he was too standoffish and never gave him a second thought after the cruise."

The two met again on another Royal cruise, and this time Donna decided Oscar had really just been shy, and that he "was kind of cute." They exchanged phone numbers, but Centi lost Donna's number and didn't get in touch with her until a mutual cruising friend ran into him on yet another cruise and got them together. It was love at first fox trot, and they were married in 1992. The two now cruise together--though of course Donna's is the only name on Oscar's dance card.

Such happy endings notwithstanding, women shouldn't expect romance to result from a cruise--that kind of anticipation could sabotage their vacation.

"Just go and have a good time and don't expect the Love Boat," said Lauretta Blake, whose Santa Clara, Calif., company, The Working Vacation, recruits and screens hosts for Cunard, Regency, Delta Queen and American Hawaii..

Blake screens all applicants to get to the bottom of their intentions--and determine their dancing abilities--with an extensive application process of personal interviews, dance evaluations by selected instructors and references from community leaders. She charges the men $150 per cruising week for each placement she arranges.

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The G-word (for gigolo) was a dicey issue when cruise lines first started their host programs. "A lot of people worried that the concept would attract gold-diggers stalking wealthy elderly widows and divorcees," said Mimi Weisband of Royal Cruise Lines. "We had travel agents telling us, 'We're not putting our clients on with those geriatric gigolos.' "

"It's all just good fun," said Mary Kay Cole, a 67-year-old widow from San Jose, who shudders when recounting what she calls the "bad old days" before hosts came into her shipboard life.

"What stands out most in my mind is a New Year's cruise a few years back aboard the Pacific Princess," she said. "There were all those couples dancing to a wonderful band, wearing silly hats to ring in the New Year, and my woman traveling companion and I were just lumps in the lounge chairs, totally left out of the loop. We both loved to dance and had put on our nicest dresses, but what was the point? We were in our beds by 11:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve. We might as well have stayed home."

But that was then. Hearing about Cunard's host program last year, she booked a Caribbean cruise aboard the Vistafjord.

"It was like a different world. The men were all very charming, treated us with absolute respect and were both good dancers and interesting conversationalists," she said. "I danced my heart out and loved every minute of the cruise."

Since that maiden hosted voyage, Cole has cruised exclusively on lines that have the program. Having traveled happily with Cunard and Royal, she's currently planning a Panama Canal cruise with Regency--hosted, of course.

"I'm spoiled now, and will never go back to being a wallflower when the band strikes up," she said. "I'm no Ginger Rogers, but music is for everyone, and the hosts make sure we all get to enjoy it."

GUIDEBOOK

Setting Sail With Cruise Hosts

Hosted cruises: The following cruise lines have host programs; reservations should be made through a travel agent.

Royal Cruise Lines; telephone (800) 227-5628. Between six and 10 hosts on all sailings aboard the Royal Odyssey, Crown Odyssey and Golden Odyssey. In May, the Star Odyssey will replace the Golden Odyssey and have hosts aboard all cruises.

Royal Viking Line; tel. (800) 422-8000. Two to six hosts on all cruises aboard the Royal Viking Sun.

Cunard Line Ltd.; tel. (800) 221-4770. Two to 10 hosts aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, Sagafjord and Vistafjord, the higher number on longer cruises and big-band sailings.

Regency Cruises; tel. (800) 388- 5500. Two hosts on seven-day cruises; four hosts on all 14-day cruises.

Delta Queen Steamboat Company; tel. (800) 543-1949. Two hosts on all cruises aboard the Mississippi Queen.

Crystal Cruises; (800) 446-6620 or (310) 785-9300. Four hosts on all cruises aboard the Crystal Harmony.

Holland America Line Westours Inc.; tel. 206/281-3535. Four to six hosts aboard only so-called "grand voyages" lasting more than one month.

American Hawaii Cruises, (800) 765-7000. Starting in May, hosts will sail on selected big-band cruises aboard the SS Constitution and SS Independence.

Other programs: The Merry Widows, a division of AAA Auto Club South that organizes group trips for single women who like to dance, provides hosts for cruises on a variety of ships. Contact the Merry Widows, c/o Phyllis Zeno, AAA Auto Club South, P.O. Box 31087, Tampa, Fla. 33631; tel. (800) 445-1261..

Ballroom Dancers Without Partners organizes cruises for single men and women over 50 interested in ballroom dancing. The group travels with dance instructors who double as hosts. For information, contact Ira Goldberg, Luxury Worldwide Cruises & Tours, 1449 N.W. 15th St., Miami, Fla. 33125; tel. (407) 361-9384.

Travel Companion Exchange, a bimonthly newsletter for single travelers, frequently contains articles about cruises, including information on special sailings with dance partner/hosts aboard. For subscription information, Contact Travel Companion Exchange, P.O. Box 833, Amityville, N.Y. 11701; tel. (516) 454-0880.

To become a host: Lauretta Blake of The Working Vacation books hosts aboard Cunard Line, Regency Cruises, Delta Queen Steamboat Company and American Hawaii Cruises, charging men $150 per cruising week for placements she arranges. (Cruise lines do not charge hosts any fee.) For information, contact The Working Vacation, 4277 Lake Santa Clara Drive, Santa Clara, Calif. 95054; tel. (408) 727-9665..

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