A half-moon is shining as the Silver Wind, one of Silversea's four small luxury cruise ships, departs Manaus, a steamy, down-on-its-heels city in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon Basin. It's just after dusk as the ship glides by an endless dark swatch of jungle teeming with orchids, palms, and wild animals. Aboard the ship, meanwhile, the social animals are out in full display. In the lavishly appointed Panorama Lounge, where a dance quartet is playing, women in bold leopard spots and tiger stripes lurk beside potted palm trees. Others flutter about in outfits as brightly colored as butterflies' wings. The male passengers are more sedately outfitted in typical black tie—tropical penguins, perhaps. The standout among them is a handsome white buck of a man in a snowy dinner jacket. His eyes are a piercing blue. His pink scalp, fringed by white hair, glows in the dimly illuminated lounge. With his nautical, old-school look, he could be working a party with the Pulitzers in Palm Beach or the Kennedys in Hyannis Port.
"Would you care to dance?" he asks a well-dressed woman of a certain age as she walks past. She would indeed, and off they go for a spin on the floor. After one song, he escorts her back to her table, in a cabaret lounge that could be a scene of Las Vegas as painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. He returns to his spot on the red-carpeted stairs and places his hands behind his back. If he looks as though he's on duty, that's because he is. After all, he isn't on this extravagantly expensive cruise to Rio as a paying guest who can dance with whomever he wants, whenever he wants. He is, as the tag on his dinner jacket says, TOM GOODALE, GENTLEMAN HOST, and he is here to make sure that every woman traveling alone or in the company of a husband with two left feet has a chance to dance the night away.
It's not yet eight o'clock, and though it may seem early for dancing, it's a big night on the Silver Wind, a formal meet-the-captain evening that includes champagne toasts, introductions of the entire crew, a receiving line as organized as any for a state dinner, and, of course, dancing, dancing, dancing. "Have you been to Brazil before?" Goodale asks another coiffed, middle-aged woman as he expertly moves her around the floor to the sounds of the tuxedo-clad band. She doesn't answer, just keeps smiling and nodding. Goodale keeps throwing out harmless questions that get no response from her until he finally asks, with a grin still plastered on his face, "Do you speak English?" No, she tells him, she does not. He doesn't show even a ripple of embarrassment, just keeps gliding across the room. "Well," he says as he whirls her hard, almost as if to flush away any discomfort, "isn't this fun?"
Welcome to a night in the life of the male dance host, a nonpaid employee gaining popularity with cruise lines that are looking to increase live edutainment for passengers. In a world in which relaxing is becoming as regimented as working, cruises are great getaways for doing everything—rock climbing; taking courses on feng shui; cooking; editing digital movies—while supposedly doing nothing. "Guests are expecting to accomplish more, and, of course, dancing has always been important on ships," says Doug Jones, owner of Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that provides shows, lectures, and dance hosts to many lines. "In particular, cruises want to attract older, single female passengers with disposable incomes—and these women like to dance." Sixth Star has an extensive database and relationships with dance schools around the world that feed eligible, single older men into the program, placing 450 dance hosts on ships every year. "It's one of the core areas of this business," says Jones, "and a very sweet program."
His Web site encourages applications from personable and well-mannered applicants, retired or semiretired from professional careers. The company then interviews each applicant to be sure he can converse, and dance, fluently. (The fox-trot, swing, rumba, waltz, and cha-cha are required.) Once accepted into the program, Sixth Star dance hosts—whom the company dubs Distinguished Gents—can choose to be dispatched to cruises on a variety of lines, including the Celebrity, Radisson, and Silversea. They pay Sixth Star $25 a day for voyages that cost passengers at least 20 times as much.
Just one generation ago, the male host phenomenon didn't exist. But in 1977, when feminism was giving older women the freedom to be more demanding, Phyllis Zeno, a travel industry professional, started hosting Merry Widow cruises for various ships, providing one male dance host for every four women. In 1982, the now defunct Royal Cruise Line launched its first "gentlemanly host" program, inspiring Lauretta Blake, another industry veteran, to create a little business out of the acquisition and dispatching of unsalaried escorts. Blake named her company Working Vacation and established the requirements and parameters for the field: while they are considered volunteers, hosts are entitled to the amenities of passengers (excluding single rooms and free drinks) in exchange for being on call as dance partners and social ambassadors for part of each day and every night. The Working Vacation Web site stipulates that hosts "must be single, 45-72 years old, refined social dancers, cultivated and distinguished gentlemen who enjoy enriching the lives of others...great human beings possessing the highest moral ethics." That means no hanky-panky whatsoever—and an ability to hold your liquor.
The job seems an ideal one for Goodale, 68, a former Yale hockey captain and a retired Philip Morris executive from New Canaan, Connecticut. He's a team player who takes his position seriously and does his best to make passengers feel fascinating. He rarely becomes overtaxed with too many duties, and, along with a generally obliging nature, he has a distinct appreciation for the floating country club that is cruise-ship living.
Being a host does demand an etiquette all its own, not to mention a sense of purpose and air of command that prevents passengers from looking you over and dismissing you on sight as "the help." It also doesn't hurt to be right at home on the surface of things. Goodale not only must dance with strangers who may not know a tango from a two-step, he also has to thrust himself solo into card games, intimate lunches, and dinners with any number of people who don't speak English or feel they have to be particularly nice to someone getting a free cruise. He's required to teach dance classes, chaperone land excursions, and stay on his feet every night until midnight. "I make sure I don't rock the boat too much," he says about his interactions with passengers, "and often as soon as they start talking, a curtain comes down over my brain and I basically just go with the flow."
So even though Goodale admits that he isn't the smoothest of dancers, Lauretta Blake of Working Vacation considers him to be one of the best at his game. With a muscular style that he can easily adjust to accommodate each partner, he has been felicitously fox-trotting his way through his first night afloat in the Amazon. Never mind the 8,000 or so species of insects flying around outside in the equatorial night air; inside, the women are lighting on him everywhere. It goes on this way until well after midnight, when he should be off duty. One of his last dances of the evening is with a blond, middle-aged woman traveling alone from Switzerland. She's feeling no pain, and although the ship is not rocking—it's creeping along on a wide and placid river, after all—she is. In such a genteel crowd, her stupor is somewhat embarrassing, and while the terribly elegant pianist plays "Brazil" on a white piano, she nearly pulls Goodale into the plants at the edge of the intimate dance floor. With a smile still firmly in place on his pink face, he props her up and asks if she'd like some water. "No—wine," she says.