Armed with a few dance moves and some clever anecdotes, male cruise-ship hosts are sweeping single female passengers off their feet while seeing the world. But how to navigate the choppy waters of closed circles, social niceties, and catty jealousies?

Baerbel Schmidt

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.

"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.

Most cruise lines have male-hosting programs aboard their ships. By contacting a company or host-staffing service directly, potential ambassadors can learn about particular requirements, restrictions, and how to join the fleet's team of escorts.

Silversea Cruises
23-DAY AMAZON CRUISE FROM $11,000; MALE HOSTS FROM $644. 800/722-9955;

Working Vacation

Sixth Star Entertainment & Marketing