I could’ve danced all night

Original article here. [VIA Magazine, 1999, photo 2007, Kent Wade, Buenos Aires]

On a nine-day cruise across the Atlantic, swinging to the Big Band sound of Tommy Dorsey was a breeze—especially for women traveling alone.

By Camille Cusumano (photo, Kent Wade)

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle, I chanted with the women of my generation, a strident slogan meant to crumble crusty patriarchal assumptions. But this past spring in New York, I boarded Holland America’s SS Rotterdamand checked that conviction at the port. I was stepping into an earlier era, an age of innocence in which very little was equivocal, from the legitimacy of a war to which sex asks the other to dance. I embraced the quaint notion that I needed a man.

Make that men. One at a time. I was satisfying a pent-up desire—to dance, that is—on a big band theme cruise from New York to Lisbon. My significant other, by his own definition, is a moving violation on the dance floor. And a cruise is his idea of solitary confinement. He bid me farewell and told me to “break a leg” as I left him ashore.

On this transatlantic sailing, we would call at ports in Bermuda and the Azores, but it was the five “at sea” days that intrigued me. They meant more time to swing to the music of the legendary Tommy Dorsey Orchestra of the great Jazz Age. A far cry from the free-form hip-slinging of my rebellious ’60s youth, this meant the disciplined, gender-specific moves of six- and eight-count ballroom basics—steps that entered my repertoire once I was old enough to appreciate the harmony and grace of my parents’ generation. As we left harbor, every detail, from soft breezes to the live music on the 10-story aft deck, felt harmonized for romance at sea. The sparkling clean ship slid along the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty and out to the South Atlantic. But wait. I was alone amid a sea of couples. How could this be romantic?

Enter the Knights in Shining White Pants. Known as “social hosts,” they are the men who cruise almost for free in exchange for dancing with—and spreading themselves among—the single women on board. The first night they were brought onstage to music, bright spotlights, and fanfare. Just like the scene in which the gold-digging Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon characters are introduced in the corny Hollywood comedy Out to Sea.

Meet John Donaldson, 48, widower, a dapper, salt-and-pepper-haired paramedic/fireman in real life.
Meet Bill Rodgers, 63, divorced, a hair stylist from New Jersey. Bill profited from the male shortage and was always surrounded by women, even during his off-hours.
Meet Jerry Mallon, 71, retired aircraft engineer from Denver, with a swatch of white satin for hair, on his maiden voyage as a host. A sparkle in his eye and unrestrained flirtatious remarks betrayed him early on as someone having difficulty following the mandate not to get involved with the female passengers.
Meet Gordon Russell-Cave, 63, widower, an Oxford-educated engineer from Brighton, England. Speaking Queen’s English, Gordon was as elegant as Michael Caine and made every woman of any age, size, or shape feel as if he were there for her only. The American hosts danced, but Gordon dahhhnced—like a ship on a sea of glass.

No, I was not alone. All those couples had to dance with each other for the entire voyage. Not I. I can’t remember when I could change partners more often. I was one of a few dozen women, “solos” in cruise line parlance, to be attended by men trained to read our cues and be on guard for our happiness. We had only to enter the proscenium, the Queen’s Lounge on the Promenade Deck. Stage directions: Look eager, hopeful, unattached.

On embryonic sea legs, I found my way to the lounge in the fore of the ship. Eighty-year-old trombonist and conductor Buddy Morrow (who played with the original Dorsey band in the late ’30s) held center stage. The room was bathed in surreal rose and gold lighting. Morrow said softly, “And now a Nelson Riddle arrangement of a Cole Porter favorite.”

The music of “Night and Day” blossomed as I sank into a red velvet booth at a cocktail table, ordered a flute of champagne, and watched the nimble footwork on the polished wood floor. I confess to initial stage fright. Would the men in tuxes choose me—just once?

My first dance might have been as proper as those of the ’40s dance cotillions, where the gentleman pulls a handkerchief from his back pocket to hold the lady’s hand. Except that I stepped to a different beat than Bill. But he proved to be as patient as a big brother, willing to bark commands in my ear—slow! slow! quick! quick!—in his boyish Jerry Lewis voice. Still, I danced on top of Bill’s feet more than on anyone else’s. Each time I did, I exclaimed, “Oh! Must be a swell.” By the end of our voyage, you could balance a glass of wine on my head as I learned to follow the beat in Bill’s head.

Dancing went smoothly to “Without a Song” with fellow baby boomer John, who didn’t mind when I forgot my place and took the lead. John had to take private lessons to become a host. “My worst fear was that I’d be dancing with ladies who expected Fred Astaire,” he said. “I learned they just wanted a warm body.” On the dance floor.

All the hosts have agreed in writing “not to show favoritism.” I asked Gordon, a six-year veteran who had cut his first rug on the grand Queen Elizabeth II,his secret to skillful mingling. “I like to dance with a lot of women,” he said. “You can have a ball. Literally.” He added, “You don’t need any special training. The keen dancers have a body language for ‘I want to dance.’ They sit near the dance floor. But as good hosts we don’t ignore those in the back.”

On another cruise, the woman “in the back” declined Gordon’s invitation to dance, but something told him to persist. He learned that this cruise had been planned with the woman’s husband—until he became her dearly departed. “I danced a few dances with her,” he said, “and I saw that she’d made two or three steps forward in her grieving.” A process Gordon, widowed at 55, knew all too well. “There are lots of satisfying moments like that,” he said.

The hosts were just one example of how well Holland America knows its audience. The Rotterdamis a 59,652-ton vessel with every amenity and setting, from the quiet, sea view-surrounded Erasmus Library and airy dining rooms to the Lido Deck pools, spa, gym, casino, espresso bar, and six lounges. I visited every corner of the ship at least once. But the bulk of my time transpired in the shadowy half-dark, under gold ceiling lamps, amid the classical statuary and urns of the Queen’s Lounge. No matter that the outside deck was imbued with sun and balmy air. Time for the next costume change, to attend the tea dance.

The acoustics of the lounge seemed designed to induce euphoria. The 16-piece brass- and woodwind-rich band distracted me as I sat out hot numbers like “Mack the Knife” and Dorsey’s “Song of India.” A Sinatra medley sung by 35-year-old “boy singer” Walt Andrus was a thrilling, crooning knockoff of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

Over the nine-day sailing, I socialized with my sister “solos.” I enjoyed chatting with Lois Cummins, 69, from Seattle, who cruises often. “My husband died 27 months ago,” she said sadly. “It’s been hard.” But she said she’d made good friends with other single women on cruises, loves to dance, and felt the ship was a haven of safety. “I’d never walk into a bar in Seattle alone,” she said. The Knights were custom-made for diminutive Lois.

And for Jean, 67, from New Jersey, who also had lost her husband, and for Helen, who wouldn’t divulge her age but professed her search for the next man. She looked as ageless as Lena Horne and just as seductive in her tight, black-beaded gown. She sashayed onto the floor with Gordon for a samba, her strong calf muscle flexing through the knee-high slit.

When not dancing, I sat mesmerized by the lithe figure of Yvonne Griffiths, 55, from Denver. The small of her back would vanish into the palm of a host and she would float. One night she coaxed Jorge, the pianist in the Ocean Lounge, onto the floor for a crowd-scattering tango with all the requisite dips. Finally I had to ask her if her feet, in their T-strap pumps, ever touched the ground. Not surprisingly, she told me she’d had years of Arthur Murray lessons. She had a husband who shared my beau’s opinions on dancing and cruising. Yvonne had been on the Rotterdam’sworld cruise for three months and thought the dancing was as near to perfect as it gets. “I think the only thing the ladies want is a bigger dance floor and more gentlemen hosts,” she said. The Woman in the Balcony (her official moniker) had the man shortage worked out. Scarlet Ewan, 76, from Houston, a former singer with the band Holiday Dreamers, had no patience with sitting out dances, so she danced every one—alone in the balcony.

We solos were the subculture aboard ship, but the married couples who shared our dance floor seemed like extras in our drama. Melodrama, at times: A lipstick smear on Gordon’s jacket led to an inquisition—who’s wearing the plum-berry? A rumor started that Agnes, who was built close to the ground and resembled Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz,kept a scorecard in her purse—how many dances did each woman get with each host? The social hosts were afraid of her and asked her to dance a lot. I couldn’t imagine what was whispered when I danced with singer Andrus to “Stardust Melody” and he crooned the lyrics to me.

For my part, I found myself more than once upholding the honor of these chivalrous knights, who never took leave of a lady until she was reseated. Allusions to gigolos in search of rich widows and tsk-tsking about their real motives seemed silly even in these Clintonesque times. The Hollywood version—a crotchety, penniless Matthau goes after and gets a leggy, busty, never-aging, never-sagging blonde, Dyan Cannon—didn’t help.

But Matthau didn’t have to pass muster with the likes of Lauretta Blake, whose Gentleman Host Program recruits men for the cruise lines. Many are called—to sea—but few are chosen.

“We go all over and meet the men personally,” says Blake, who presses the Knights of the Sea metaphor. Her recruiting literature stresses “the principles of gallantry” and the (anachronistic to me) “protecting and safeguarding of women.”

Blake has been scrutinizing men for cruise lines since 1987. The trend, which is now widespread, actually began as a bold idea in 1982 with Royal Cruise Line (now part of Norwegian Cruise Line). Today Blake is convinced that women, a major segment of the cruise market, “will not return to a ship unless there are hosts.” Hosts that are beyond reproach: Each must pass a background check and a dance test covering the five basics—waltz, fox-trot, rumba, cha-cha, and swing (jitterbug). “They don’t have to be exhibition-style, but so many great men, unfortunately, don’t qualify because their social dance skills have never been developed,” Blake says.

She bristles at the term “escort” in regard to her gents—a word with an unshakably shady connotation. “We take the Host Program seriously,” says Blake, “and are very protective of its integrity.”

But in real life romance happens—even for mature libidos. And this Holland American cruise was better than real life-those steamy torch songs, the sexy wail of Buddy Morrow’s “Night Train,” Andrus’s chairman-of-the-board phrasing, dancing cheek to cheek, the relentless sway of the boat. Blake simply says, “We tell them to start any personal relationships after ship time.”

Easy for her to say. Jerry, who has been married twice, once for 22 years, once for six, said he wasn’t sure he would cruise as a host again. “I feel handcuffed. I’d like to sit and chat with all the charming women. I’m still chasing my hopes and desires. I’m looking for a special person, tall, slim. Yes, I think of finding my next love here.”

Not me. I found my true love years ago, chicken legs and all. I’m on to a wilder fantasy: an ever-ready partner, no strings attached, who can’t stop dancing. For me the hardest part was waiting to be asked. On occasion, I didn’t. No one seemed to mind. Not even Agnes.