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Male Cruise Ship Dancers

"What is wrong with these ladies?" Goodale reflects later in the running diary he keeps of his experiences on the 18 voyages he's traveled on from Cape Town to Sydney as a dance host. "I think this is the worst group of dancers ever."

But that won't stop them from twirling the nights away. Something about a cruise—the moonlight, the champagne, the white dinner jackets, the lull of tranquil waters, your grandfather's music—encourages intrigue and fantasy. "I always cry at sailings, they're so romantic," says an attractive widow in Out to Sea, a 1997 comedy about two dance hosts played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Whether it's Cole Porter's racy Anything Goes or Noël Coward's elegiac Sail Away, the sappy entanglements on The Love Boat or the quivery scenes between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, cruises are always spiked with at least a touch of sexual titillation. And even if Out to Sea is a little far-fetched in its portrayal of two dance hosts who do nothing but break every rule in the book, it succeeds in capturing the essential function and challenge of the gig: To be an object of desire to everybody and nobody simultaneously, a kind of moving-target extra man every single night. "Think of yourselves as butterflies, gentlemen, and the guests as flowers," a cruise director tells Lemmon and Matthau on their first night onboard. "Your job is to pollinate the flowers with hospitality," which means, do not settle anywhere or with anyone for too long.

Published manuals tell dance hosts to refrain from showing favoritism, "assuring that unbiased attention is equitably given to all the unaccompanied ladies," writes vanLee Hughey in You Could Be at Sea Dance Hosting, a self-published primer. "As working hosts know, it's tough to achieve that balance." By his fourth night on this voyage from Manaus to Buenos Aires, the only other gentleman host on the Silver Wind besides Goodale is finding that out. He's been spending too much time with one passenger, a Southerner who doesn't like socializing or dining in large groups, and she's monopolizing his time both at meals and on the dance floor. "I have to correct the situation before it gets out of control," he says at the bar, but alas, he doesn't. By the end of the Brazilian cruise—during which 296 guests are in a contained space for two weeks and have nothing better to do than create little puffs of scheming and jealousy—he will end up being reprimanded in the office of the ship's hotel director. When most of the passengers disembark in Rio, one of them will give him bad grades in her evaluation of the cruise. It happens on cruise after cruise to any host who isn't every female passenger's perfect knight. "Women get jealous," he shrugs.

As a veteran host with 10 years of service behind him, Goodale has the Yankee manners and enthusiasm that allow him to navigate the tricky little shoals of social interaction and nicety (afternoon tea every day, mandatory dress-up soirees, invitations to dine at the captain's table or with some other self-consciously dignified group) that have little to do with casual daily life and more to do with the entitled formality of turn-of-the-century hotels in Newport. It cannot make it easier that Goodale—after emerging from a small suite he shares with the other dance host on this cruise—has to make merry every evening (even if he's not feeling well), when passenger expectations of glamour run terribly high. After many at-sea days with not much to do but worry about where and with whom they're having dinner, these women expect night after night of gracious, seamless living, moving from the cigar bar to the champagne lounge to the casino with no surprises from unsavory personalities or unruly seas.

Unflagging pleasantness comes naturally to Goodale, which makes him an asset on longer cruises where single senior women outnumber senior men three to one, and passengers use the enclosed safety of a cruise ship as an excuse to get out the big jewels. Still, traveling alone can be a trial for the recently widowed. And because cruising allows for everything except the slightest mental discomfort, dance hosts like Goodale are doing more than simply crisscrossing the globe in luxury for dollars a day: they offer an increasingly necessary service. Single women past their prime, after all, don't need just an ear, but an arm as well. As the Silver Wind plies through waters where pink boto dolphins leap, scarlet macaws fly overhead, children in canoes paddle by, and villagers wave from huts on the shore near Belém, Goodale's arm is frequently extended and then tightly held. "The longest walk on a ship when you're alone," says Judy Abbott, the Silver Wind's cruise director, who is widowed herself, "is from your suite to the dining room."

On the third afternoon of his cruise, Goodale is giving a dance class in the bar to a half dozen couples who are not exactly light on their feet. They look, in fact, more like awkward adolescents than mature people of means. "T-A-N-G-O!" Goodale is spelling out to the beat over music repeating endlessly. "T-A-N-G-O!" He is so involved and so intent on his teaching that he is perspiring above his lip. "Gentlemen, pull the ladies in, then let them throw themselves at you," he instructs. "You're not on the beat," he diplomatically tells one couple, "but that's okay because I see you're having fun. That's perfect." When an attractive widow needs a partner, he takes her in right away, works with her for a while, makes her laugh, and then leaves her moments later. She tells a friend that this is the first time she has danced since her husband died. "He used to love to tango," she says, "but I see now that we were doing it wrong for fifty-one years." She's flushed, perhaps a little smitten with Goodale. "I think that Tom is a very strong dancer and a very nice gentleman," she purrs to her friend, who looks at her askance. "Wow, I haven't seen you like this in years," the friend replies.

No matter how personable a woman is, however, Goodale isn't interested in making a love connection (he's divorced, with grown children, and insists that marriage doesn't tempt him); nor does he get raves from every passenger. He may have his own gripes as well—not feeling appreciated by the ship's hotel and cruise directors, for instance, or not getting a private room on the Silver Wind when there seemed to be one available. Still, he does not get himself into trouble. The key is never to stop moving. "My attitude is that if I'm going to have fun, everyone else will too," he says.

"Did you like seeing the village today?" Goodale is asking one particularly difficult passenger—a woman with a Midwestern twang who tends to be an unpleasant combination of all-knowing and provincial—as he walks her to the dining room and pulls out her chair. "It was okay," she replies about an excursion that got passengers off their air-conditioned lap of luxury and into a busto Alter do Chao, a settlement on the Tapajós River with rustic cottages, clear waters, and a sandy beach. "I thought it was amazing," says Goodale, who had had fun chaperoning another excursion the day before—a piranha-fishing trip outside the city of Santarém. "Not amazing," she says. "Maybe interesting, that's it. I'd already seen all that before."

This is the kind of dinner that could test his endurance, but before his order is even taken, salvation arrives in the form of four strangers whom the maître d' has sent over to join the table. They are two couples from France, not particularly good English speakers. Goodale starts chatting with the chic, rail-thin woman in sunglasses about his last trip to France, and gets all of the group trying to figure out where he had eaten truffles near Nice. He has no idea. They have no idea either. But they throw themselves into the conversation, and before long he has them laughing, talking about politics, and inviting him to visit them in France.

Later in the week at another dinner, he wishes he didn't have to hear about the first time a woman at his table had sex in the 10 years since her husband died. But he does, and he smiles right through it as he shares her bottle of Dom Pérignon. By now, he's used to smiling through anything: At the woman on another cruise who told him she wasn't wearing a bra and didn't know how she'd get out of her dress later. At the woman who informed him during a dance that she had two artificial legs. He smiled at the one who called him Boy Toy, and at the one who said, with lips almost touching his, "In any other circumstance, you wouldn't be breathing right now."

But those were his early days, before he could be picky about his cruises. Tonight, on the discreet Silver Wind, one of the only cruise ships that Goodale hosts on anymore, no such vulgarity is in the air. It's late, and he's making his rounds after dinner. A woman is tapping her foot to the music. He approaches with an almost supplicating posture (dance-hosting manuals stress the importance of approaching women deferentially to make them feel sought after). "Are you going to have a dance with me tonight?" he asks. The passenger looks him up and down and says, "Only if you're lucky." Then they both laugh as if she'd said something terribly witty, and as "I Will Survive" begins to play, he goes off with her to tear up the dance floor.

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