Now that cruise lines are returning to “full steam ahead” perhaps it is time to reconsider a dance job at sea. Opportunity awaits those with the talent it takes to land a job at sea. But is it safe in light of the pandemic that seems to be lingering on?
If you intend to pursue this dream, you will want to research the specific Covid-19 protocols of the companies you will audition for and give the matter careful consideration before you sign your contract. Be advised, the guidelines may mean limited offshore time and learning a whole new set of dance tracks in case fellow cast members come down with the virus. But the truth is, performing in any field of entertainment at this time involves a new normal of precautions and practices. The impressive Celebrity X Cruises Health & Safety protocols exemplify what all of the major cruise lines have in place now. These guidelines appear to be as stringent as humanly possible. It just may be safer than venturing into your local supermarket! This is only one of the many items to research before you embark on this career path.
If you are curious about what a dancer’s life at sea is like, you have come to the right place.
When it comes to dancing on a cruise ship, you have to be multi-talented. You will likely perform in a wide variety of genres: ballroom, Latin dance, theater dance, hip-hop, ballet (perhaps en pointe), tap, contemporary – you name it. While the more versatile you are the better, Mary Roberts, Production Show Supervisor for Norwegian Cruise Line, emphasizes jazz dance as the primary technique in which you need to be well trained because counts and reproducing choreography exactly as taught are crucial in rehearsals and performances alike (not to mention that it will help you audition successfully in the first place).
Cruise line dance experience will serve you well in finding future performance work.
Besides the featured production shows, presented in huge venues, ranging from edgy Rock ‘n Roll shows to Broadway Musicals, there are many other types of cruise ship entertainment you may be involved in. Themed shows are smaller scale performances centered around a specific theme - such as the 60’s. These typically take place in themed party or event settings and may be followed by interactions with guests. Another type of performance, “Bumpers”, as they are called on Norwegian Cruise Line, are shorter, pop-up entertainment numbers (5 to 8 minutes long) that can be performed in different areas of the ship, such as poolside. On Royal Caribbean International, you will perform in parades. If this sounds surprising, remember you are essentially working in a floating city. Every cruise line has its own vision and types of performances, so it is difficult to generalize except to say: “Expect the unexpected!” You may find yourself in some extraordinary situations.
You might be asked to learn and perform aerial skills even if you have no prior experience in that realm. You might be asked to sing although your audition didn’t include singing, or perhaps to lip sync as a back-up singer or chorus member in a Broadway style show. Darren Pitre, a former dancer with Celebrity Cruises (2016 – 2017), advises: “If you are afraid of heights….you better overcome it. If your singing abilities aren’t up to par, go take lessons”. It may not apply to all cruise lines, but with Celebrity Cruises, dancers need to be prepared for the possibility of aerial work – on their audition form you will be asked if you are willing to be trained to do aerial work as much as 30 feet off the ground. If you always wanted to learn aerial dance, this could be your opportunity!
As you would expect, you will perform the same material over and over with the same cast members. For all the dancers I spoke with this is perceived as a plus. Darren emphasized the benefits of dancing with the same cast members for months on end. “We got to have very strong, easy-going shows as we became a family on stage. Show after show it would only get better.” Dancer Bryant Henderson agrees. “Once you’re a couple of weeks into the contract and everyone has found their groove, you are able to become less concerned about remembering all of the choreography and relish the time sharing the stage with friends and entertaining the guests.”
Another aspect of working on a cruise ship that might surprise you, is that while rehearsals on land will be arduous and the installation of the productions on the ship will be intense, once this process is complete you may have a lot more time off than you expected. I asked Kristen Moranetz, Celebrity Cruises dancer, about the workload dancers should be prepared for. “This depends on the length of the cruise. If a cruise length is 7 days, we will do 3 or 4 production shows and then 3 theme shows and have one full day off. However, my last ship had 15-day cruises, so during those 15 days, we would perform 3 or 4 production shows, and do the 3 theme shows, leaving at least 7 full days off during that cruise.” Kristen describes this as “a blessing and a curse because it is easy to get lazy and we have to work extra hard to keep our fitness level up and keep improving as dancers.”
On the other hand, on a shorter cruise you will be performing daily. Mary comments that “longer cruises will give you a better quality of life.” After your first contract you may be able to request a specific vessel to travel to the places you desire with the length of cruises you prefer. But for your first contract, you will not have a choice.
Speaking of contracts…they will typically vary in length from 6 to 8 months and generally during that time period you are not going to get a break to go home… but there are exceptions. For example, on Royal Caribbean International, Maria Tucker, Rehearsal Choreographer/Director, shared that sometimes performers are granted “compassionate leave” for circumstances such as a sickness or death in the immediate family and sometimes even get time off for “short-term gigs that have been pre-approved.” But, “normally dancers may only leave a contract due to illness or injury.” She added that “in some instances, a performer can be pulled off a contract if the company chooses to place them on another ship”. If you are hired as a replacement dancer, you will have a shorter contract than usual and would join the cast mid-contract. Due to maritime law, the maximum length of time you can work onboard ships without breaks is 10 months.
Right about now you may be wondering – how much will I be paid for dancing on a cruise ship? You can anticipate $500 to $800 per week on your first contract (but this varies from line to line). With subsequent contracts you can negotiate for higher pay. The good news is there are perks. You are not paying rent, not paying for food (unless you choose to eat in special restaurants rather than the crew mess), you have access to the gym, medical care is provided - you get the idea. If you play your cards right, you will be able to save money (which may be helpful for any break between this contract and your next job.) Oh and let us not forget, you are getting to travel the world for free!
Besides dancing in the various types of performances aboard your vessel, as a dancer working on a cruise ship, additional jobs such as Dance Captain or Wardrobe Captain could mean private quarters and additional pay. These roles can be a route to a more comfortable life onboard ship, but may or may not be an option for you. Mary explained that “After several contracts and an interview process, one dancer will be deemed dance captain.”
Kristen and Darren both taught dance lessons on their respective vessels. Kristen acts as Wardrobe Keeper (sometimes referred to as Wardrobe Captain). On other cruise lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, Wardrobe Keeper is a dedicated position i.e. not available to dancers. On Royal Caribbean International, Maria shared that dancers crew the ice shows and the skaters crew the dance shows. While additional jobs and duties for the entertainment crew represent another area that varies from one line to another, on all ocean liners there will be various safety duties. On some cruise liners, there are additional random duties you may be asked to perform, but don’t worry, you won’t be swabbing the decks.
One of the downsides of life on a cruise ship is that your personal freedom of expression off stage will be restricted. For example, restrictions on what you can wear when you are not on stage may be imposed by the Cruise Director such as (true story) mid-cruise you may be told you cannot wear open-toed shoes or something else that may seem silly to you. Besides that, you will have less freedom than usual with your appearance in general. More diversity of body types is embraced by cruise lines now than in the past, but nonetheless you are hired for your look, whatever that is. Mary emphasized that once you are hired, you will be agreeing not to change your look or to gain or lose weight, dye your hair, and so forth. Some dancers find giving up their freedom in this manner frustrating, but you are filling a need for specific roles in specific productions – so be prepared to surrender the ability to alter your appearance during your contract just as you would for a Broadway Show or most commercial dance jobs.
How you perform throughout your contract may determine whether you are offered another automatically, but for some cruise lines, you will have to re-audition for your next contract. In any case, according to Kristen, there are “amazing performers who aren’t offered a contract because of behavioral issues” so it isn’t just about being a great dancer. If you have the necessary talent, temperament, and stamina and comport yourself professionally, you can go far. And once you are ready to move on, cruise line dance experience will serve you well in finding future performance work. There are also non-entertainment staff opportunities available - for example both Mary and Maria transitioned into jobs on the creative staff in the studio after working as dancers.
While a life at sea isn’t for everyone and the pros and cons of working on a cruise ship are all worth considering, you will be hard-pressed to find a dance job that will give you the breadth of performance experience you will gain from dancing on a cruise ship.
Working on a Cruise Ship: A day in the life of a dancer courtesy of Kristen Moranetz
This is what a typical show day on Celebrity Cruises looks like (keep in mind, different Covid safety protocols may affect this schedule, based on your cruise line):
8:45 a.m. Run to the crew mess just before it closes at 9:00 for a quick bite of breakfast.
9:00 a.m. Go to the gym for a bit of a workout before our tech call time.
10:00 a.m. Call time. We are required to do a tech run every show day, so we will warm up as a cast, do mic check, our stage manager will check the moving stage parts, and the dancers and aerialists will do aerial checks to ensure everything is working properly and safely.
10:45 a.m. Get notes from our captains - dance, vocal, and aerial - if we need a reblock we will do this now.
11:30 a.m. Tech run!
12:30 p.m. We eat a light lunch and then head our own way until our call time at 6:00 p.m.
Afternoon: I usually get a coffee and watch one of the ship’s venue musicians who play throughout the day. If it is a nice day, I also like to walk along an open deck and enjoy the views and get some fresh air. The theater is used in the afternoons for lectures and matinee shows, so if something interesting is on, I might go watch that.
5:00 p.m. Time to get ready! I do my hair and makeup either backstage or in my cabin. Then, right before call, I usually just grab a light bite of something so I have enough energy to last for the performances.
6:00 p.m. Call time. Once I am backstage, I preset my costumes and double check everything is set correctly. The last 30 minutes or so I use to warm up.
7:00 and 9:00 p.m. Shows! All our shows are about one hour long so we have an hour break in between to rest and preset.
10:00 p.m. Wrap up. After the second show, everyone puts away their costumes and they are done! My day continues however since I am the Wardrobe Keeper so I am in charge of washing the costumes. Luckily, the laundry room is next to our staff bar where the cast usually gathers after shows for food, drinks, and mingling with our friends from other departments.
12:00 a.m. Once I finish up, I head straight to bed so I am ready for whatever adventures await the next day!
A special thanks to the generous sources for this article: Christy McNeil Chand, Bryant Henderson, Kristen Moranetz, Darren Pitre, Mary Roberts & Maria Tucker.