Going Pro: Cruise Ships

March 18, 2009

Dancing in a musical or a revue on a cruise ship for thousands of people and traveling the world can be exciting, but being successful at it requires a lot of hard work and intense preparation. Here are tips to make nabbing a contract on a cruise ship one of the most rewarding experiences of your career.

Getting Cast

Expect the audition combos to be taught at rapid speed. It’s important that casting directors hire dancers who learn quickly, since the rehearsal process is often rushed. Prepare beforehand by asking a teacher or classmate to teach you a piece of choreography that you don’t know. Time yourself to see how fast you can pick up the moves. Challenge yourself by concentrating on minute details and matching your style to that of the demonstrator. Also, build your vocal chops: The ability to carry a tune can make you a contender for more roles.

The first impression you give casting directors is crucial. As you enter the audition, smile genuinely, and show enthusiasm when learning the routines. Although clean technique is important, your personality may give you an edge. Kim Stowe, casting director for dancers at Stiletto Entertainment in L.A., says, “I’m looking for a dancer that picks up the style of the combination quickly, has fantastic technique, but above all can sell themselves while performing. I can forgive mistakes in an audition if they wow me with their performance and energy.”

Embarkation Readiness

Keep in mind that you’ll be packing for six months to a year, during which time you’ll likely experience extreme weather, climate changes and various degrees of formality. Some cruise lines require dancers to wear uniforms while in public areas, but the majority will allow you to wear “country club casual” attire (no jeans, T-shirts, sneakers or tank tops) except on occasions when formal attire is required. Pack more casual clothing as well for your free time in port, and don’t forget your stash of rehearsal clothes and dance shoes. You’ll be able to do laundry on the ship. You’ll also need a valid passport, and, if traveling to Europe, chances are you’ll need a Seaman’s Book, which includes the documents necessary to legally allow you to leave the ship and enter the port. Ask the casting director or producer about this as soon as you receive your contract.

Work the Plank

The amount of information you’ll be expected to retain during the first few weeks of your post can be overwhelming. “Our cast members rehearse 6 days a week, eight hours a day for between three and six weeks, depending on the number of shows they’re learning,” Stowe says. Typically, dancers have four to six days to learn each 45- to 60-minute show. The number of shows varies according to cruise length. Seven-day cruises typically require two full-length shows and one shorter show, while world cruises require a repertory of at least six shows.

The rehearsal period could take place in a studio on land before boarding the ship or on the ship while the old cast is still onboard. In the latter case, the new dancers learn the choreography from the veterans. The rehearsal period is by far the most demanding part of your contract. Realize that you may have to warm up on your own before rehearsal. Get through the process by keeping a positive attitude, even if you’re unsure of the material. You may be asked to try things such as adagio work, aerial stunts and partnering. Show the choreographers that you’re willing to try new forms of dance. They appreciate the effort and will be more likely to hire you again. Also keep an open mind when meeting the other dancers. This cast, which can range from six to 20 people, will be your family onboard and you’ll most likely share a cabin with one of them.

All Aboard

Your embarkation day will be long and busy as you settle into your new cabin, file paperwork and start rehearsing for opening night. Also be ready to assume onboard responsibilities. Howard Messing of Jean Ann Ryan Productions says, “Some ships only require dancers to perform, while others may expect up to 20 hours a week of cruise-staff duties.” These responsibilities may include calling Bingo, staffing the library, socializing and hosting sports events. You may also be asked to attend lifeboat drills as a safety officer or traffic director to assist passengers in event of emergency. These responsibilities aren’t taken lightly onboard, and are part of your job.


The benefits of working on a ship usually compensate for your obligations. Get to know the shore excursion staff on your ship and offer to volunteer your services as a tour escort. Shore excursions are a wonderful way to experience the best of the ports you visit. Introduce yourself to the salon and spa staff who cut hair, massage and pamper guests. They often request volunteer “models” for passenger spa tours, which means you can receive free massages, facials and manicures. Additionally, employees receive automatic discounts in the ship’s shops. Some cruise lines also offer discounts in the bars and lounges. After some time onboard, you may be eligible for a free cruise of your choice (you’ll have to pay taxes and port fees), and some cruise lines treat friends and family to discounted cruises.

Some of the perks include complimentary room and board, gym access, pool and sauna use, crew parties, crew excursions, medical and dental coverage, and cabin cleaning service. Since dancers typically perform only two or three shows per week, you’ll have plenty of free time during your months onboard. Take the opportunity to keep a journal or diary of your favorite experiences and fun moments. Pick up a hobby, learn a language or catch up on reading and movies. Invest in a camera to capture the amazing sights you’ll see.

The Best Part

Ask a cruise ship performer what the best part of the experience was, and every answer will be unique. Betsy Struxness, who has danced for Holland America Cruise Line, says it’s “the people you meet from around the world, and the traveling.” Dancer Antuan Raimone found more personal rewards: “Being on ships became a time for me to find out what I like about myself.” Kim Stowe says this of her experience: “You’re being paid to perform in fantastic shows and see the world. I think it’s the best job in the world.” Whether you’re looking for a wonderful performance experience, the chance to travel or to bank some money, cruise ships offer an unforgettable experience to dancers.

Ali Duffy is a dancer, writer and graduate student earning an MFA in choreography at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. She has worked for Stiletto Entertainment, for Holland America Line and with the North Carolina Dance Theatre.