Friday, June 18, 2010

Shipboard Dance Class Keeps Cruisers in Step

Miami Herald

Whirling, I was actually whirling across the dance floor in a Spanish bolero, with handsome Arturo Garcia Melo from Mexico.

I imagined myself on Dancing with the Stars. Bruno (Tonioli) would be excited. Len (Goodman) would say we ``sizzle.'' Carrie Ann (Inaba) would call me graceful. We would get respectable scores on the judge's paddles, and the audience voting at home would love us.

Back to reality: This was not competitive dancing. Melo was among instructors teaching passengers to dance on the 2,550-passenger MSC Poesia, on a Latin dance-theme cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale to the Eastern Caribbean. He had just picked me, a true novice, to help demonstrate a move.

But I was very much part of a craze hitting the high seas, the opportunity to learn to dance on a cruise ship.

A ship is a nice, non-judgmental place for such experimentation. For one, the other passengers are strangers, so no worries about embarrassing yourself. Plus, shipboard classes are suitable for everyone from beginners to those who know the steps. You are not expected to be a pro.

Italian line MSC Cruises is among several lines -- Crystal Cruises, Cunard and Holland America Line are others --jumping on the dance bandwagon, offering dance classes as part of their activities rosters at a time when TV shows like Dancing with the Stars have made knowing at least a few ballroom steps a very in thing.

The lines also offer occasional dance-themed sailings with additional tutorage, like the cruise I was on. Tour operators specializing in dance (including salsa and tango) book space on ships as well, bringing instructors onboard for those who cruise as part of their groups.

Nino Torre, a hustle and salsa dance pro and DJ from Richmond, Virginia, for instance, helps organize an annual Hustle & Salsa Dance Cruise. Now in its 11th year, the group attracts about 275 participants per cruise, most from the East Coast, a third from Florida.

Instructors are dance champions, most still competing, who do workshops in both hustle and salsa as well as in tango and cha cha and other steps, Torre said. ``We survey guests before the cruise and offer classes in what they request,'' he added. Participants range in age from their late 20s to early 60s with a desire to learn a few steps and show them off on the ship's dance floor.

On the Poesia cruise, our special instructors were a competitive ballroom pair, from Cleveland, Ohio, onboard to teach several classes specifically in Latin dances. Instruction included a half-hour class after dinner each evening so those who wanted could stay on the dance floor afterward.

Melo, a former pro dancer in Mexico, and other members of the entertainment team also offered instruction once or twice a day, as they do on every cruise.

At the pool, there were casual classes in dances like bachata (a four-step dance with origins in the Dominican Republic), come-in-your-bikini affairs that attracted a decent crowd.

But the ``serious'' learning on Poesia took place indoors on the dance floor of the Zebra Lounge, all done up in black and white stripes and a sexy space to learn dances like rumba and salsa and tango. Classes here attracted about 60 regulars, which meant a crowded dance floor, sometimes dancers spilling onto the carpet. There were couples and single women and occasionally a lone man too, the group varying in age from 30s on up.

 No need to sign up in advance. If you wanted to dance, you just showed up.

In one class, ballroom pro Minas Katsantouris demonstrated a sexy salsa move, the kind that's supposed to show meaning in every wiggle -- and in his tight jeans and a fitted black T-shirt, his wiggles did just that.

``The dance floor is our place, where guys can feel strong,'' Minas proclaimed, as the men in the lounge practiced their steps on one side of the dance floor, women on the other.

I did my best with a butt-out, wiggle-down with your hips move, with Minas instructing us women to ``Make the guy go, `Oh my god, that's exciting, what's happening.' '' Except my partner was my reluctant 78-year-old mom.

With regulars in the classes it was easy to make friends. In my case, they included Canadians Carol and Owen Rhodenizer, both age 69, and dance enthusiasts, who have done 39 cruises and take lessons at home several times a week.

During a salsa class taught by Katsantouris' professional partner, Rachel Neilson, Carol was such a pal she lent me Owen.

We were doing great for a few dances, Owen a strong leader. But when Neilson showed us a move involving the woman stretching her leg under and through the man's spread legs, I decided it was time to give Carol her husband back.

Katsantouris and Neilson admitted in an interview that they were teaching us steps on our weeklong cruise in a different way than they would on land. ``I am trying to give a basic foundation. It's more quickly than we'd do in regular circumstances, but these are steps that really do exist,'' Neilson said.

And we did learn. Of the steps I picked up, my favorite was the cha cha, which I practiced with mom and other female partners and did eventually get to try with a male passenger as well. I got to the point where I was really feeling the beat, as the instructor suggested, and my feet were actually responding.

I know there was no judge's panel, or viewers watching me at home. But I still think I made it to the next round.