I grew up dancing, and after graduating from college, I hoped to perform professionally in NYC, Las Vegas or L.A. Then, through a friend, I was introduced to the idea of working on a cruise ship. I thought I’d just do one contract, like a working vacation, but I ended up loving it. It’s a great opportunity to travel and dance—and be paid for it. Since I got my first contract in 2004, I have toured the Caribbean and to Alaska, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Barcelona, spent six months cruising the Mediterranean and, most recently, visited Scandinavia, Poland and Russia while cruising the Baltic Sea! Not to mention that as a performer, this job has taught me to cope with unexpected situations and pick up choreography quickly. Think you’re ready to hit the high seas? Here’s how you can make it happen.
What It’s Like
A typical cruise ship contract is six months onboard, plus about a month’s rehearsal beforehand. How many shows you’ll perform depends on the length of the cruise as well as the other entertainment options onboard; I’ve worked anywhere from four to nine nights on a 10-day cruise, and two nights on three- and four-day cruises. Shows are dance-heavy, which means you don’t have much time offstage, and often you’ll have two shows on a performance night, with an hour’s break in between. Starting pay varies between lines but in general, first-timers receive $1,550–$2,000 per month for a six-month contract.
As with most commercial gigs, on a cruise ship it’s important to be well-versed in many genres. Styles differ between lines, and even between ships in the same line! I’ve performed hip hop, jazz, tap, ballroom, modern, showgirl and aerial work. Aside from dancing, some cruise lines require performers to take on additional duties. These jobs often involve interacting with passengers, and can range from supervising the library or internet café to hosting quizzes, games or other entertainment. When you’re investigating options, don’t forget to ask if non-stage work is required and whether you’ll be paid more for these duties.
“Extra duties are fine if it’s a personal choice and there is more money involved, but they also can affect your performance if they interfere with rehearsals or drain you of energy,” says Hannah Cutler, a dancer from London who studied at the London Studio Centre and has worked for Costa, Celebrity and Princess cruise lines. “It can also take away from the professional aspect of the productions if dancers appear to be cruise staff,” she adds.
Rocking the Boat
The most obvious difference between working on land and on sea is the motion of the ocean. If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, you know that it can take some time to get used to the movement. Now imagine trying to dance under those conditions! It’s wise to practice as much as possible with anything that could throw you off when the ship is moving, such as shoes, props, hats and costumes.
“I felt like my knees were going to pop out and I used twice as much energy,” says Alexandr Valcan from Gagauzia, an assistant line captain for Princess Cruises, about the first time he performed during rocky seas. “I felt like I wasn’t in shape for this, so I practiced while the ship was moving so I would be more prepared the next time,” he says.
Ocean movement can make partner work extra challenging as well. “If it’s rocky, I am not only responsible for me, but also for the girl I am holding above my head!” says Mariusz Bocianowski from Poland, who previously worked in Europe and in the USA cast of the dance show Spirit of the Broadway. Stormy seas can be rough, but don’t fret: Most cruise ships are so large that you soon forget that you’re moving.
Life at Sea
As with any job, there are pros and cons to dancing onboard. They include:
Time away from home: Not only are you gone for six to eight months, getting in touch with people back home can be difficult. On the plus side, many ships do have computers—and, increasingly, wireless internet—available to the crew. But as far as phone service goes, rates will be extremely high, since you’re calling from outside the U.S. You may be given a phone card to call home from the ship’s satellite phones, but this option is both expensive and frustrating—connections are delayed and often interrupted. Many people now communicate via Skype (skype.com), which allows you to make free/cheap phone calls through the internet.
Your temperament: On a ship you live, work and play in a small environment with the same people. You need self-discipline to choose how to spend your time so you don’t feel trapped or overwhelmed. It’s also important to remember that guests are watching you at all times—which means you have to behave appropriately! And you have to be able to cope with sharing very close quarters. Some lines provide dancers with their own cabin, but generally two dancers share one very small one.
The benefits: Since you can get off the boat at most ports, usually for the day, you really do get to see the world. And there’s more: You’ll have no cost of living while you’re onboard—no rent, utility or food bills! Also, you get to perform a variety of shows, not just one show night after night. Finally, you’ll work with people from all corners of the globe. “Although it was hard to communicate at first,” says Valcan, “once I got to know the other performers it became fun and I found we had things in common. The staff is always changing on ships. This has inspired me to get to know as many people as possible,” he says.
Living on a ship is certainly something that takes getting used to, but if traveling and meeting dancers from other countries and cultures—while performing for a living—interests you, then it’s well worth stretching your sea legs.