Interviews

The Life of a Cruise Ship Dancer

By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.

Picture this: You get paid to live on a four-star cruise ship, dance in Broadway-calibre shows, and travel around the world. Well, this dream could quite definitely become a reality. Dance Informa interviewed dancers from five different cruise ships to find out if life on the high seas is really as magical as it seems.

Stephanie Brooks

What cruise are/were you on?  How long was the cruise? 

Allure of Seas: Royal Caribbean. My contract was for 9 months—2 months of rehearsal and 7 months at sea.”

What shows did you perform? What was the dancing like?

“Chicago is one of the most artistically fulfilling shows I’ve ever done.  Each ensemble member is featured. There’s opportunity to improvise in the Fosse style during the show, which keeps it alive.  The energy you get from being onstage with the band is thrilling.   Every Royal Caribbean ship that has a musical also has a second production show.  The production show on the Allure, Blue Planet, is a combination of pop music, with aerial, jazz, and modern movement.  I enjoyed learning new skills in the aerial training, and doing athletic choreography.  We did 7-day cruises: 3 performances of Chicago, two days off, and 3 Blue Planet performances.  This schedule kept me inspired, rested, and fulfilled.”

Stephanie Brooks. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Brooks.

Stephanie Brooks. Photo courtesy of Brooks.

What was the audition like? Was it different from your typical theatre open call?

“For Royal Caribbean ships, they need musical theatre performers who also have the strength for aerial work and athletic movement for the production shows. We started with a basic technique across-the-floor combination, learned part of Blue Planet, “All that Jazz” from Chicago, and then sang 16 bars of music and did one of the “Cell Block Tango” monologues.  The process is a lot longer and more taxing than most normal musical theatre auditions because there are so many different elements for the two shows.  I advise eating a big breakfast and packing protein bars, water, and clearing your schedule for the day.  The first time I auditioned I had to leave for a teaching job at 4pm (the audition usually starts at 10am) and didn’t get to finish the audition. I was fortunate that they called me in a few months later to audition for a contract they needed to immediately fill.  When I received the offer I had just 11 days to pack up my life and head to rehearsals!”

What’s life like at sea? 

“Living on a ship is not for everyone, but I thrived in this environment.  I loved the convenience of the ship and all the things it had to offer.  I learned new skills like ice-skating, scuba diving, Salsa dancing, and running.  I taught classes for the crew such as Zumba, yoga on the beach or helicopter pad, and we would also take turns teaching dance or doing fitness DVDs together.  We were allowed to use the guest gym, steam room, and running track.  I loved to run around the track as the sun set over the ocean or rent bikes and explore the islands.  RCCL organised a lot of crew activities and opportunities to meet people from different departments.  With Skype and porting in the US once a week, I still felt connected to my friends and family in America.  The week after my friends or family cruised on my ship was when I felt the most homesick. There is usually a mid-contract slump, where it can become easy to just watch movies in your room and nap all day. It’s important to set goals and keep yourself motivated.  Financially, it was a huge blessing.  When I returned from my contract I was able to focus on training and auditions because I had enough ‘cushion’ to support myself until I booked my next job.”

Stephanie Brooks in Chicago on board of the Photo courtesy of Stephanie Brooks.

Stephanie Brooks in ‘Chicago’ on board of the Allure of the Seas: Royal Caribbean. Photo courtesy of Brooks.

Where did you get to travel?

We ported in Fort Lauderdale [Florida, US] and alternated Eastern and Western cruises: Labadee Haiti, Jamacia, Cozumel, Nassua Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Martin.

What was your favourite part of cruise life?

“Getting to meet and live life with people from all over the world.  I believe you become a better performer and person when you open your worldview and embrace other cultures.  There’s a lot we can learn from each other, and I don’t think there’s any other job where in one day you can interact with people from over 70 countries.”

What was your least favorite part?

“‘Install’ was my least favorite part of the contract. When you get onboard for your first contract there are a lot of maritime rules that you have to learn, in addition to adjusting to a new show and living situation.  It can be overwhelming, but try to find the fun in it and know that once you learn all of the rules of what you can and can’t do and get into a routine it will be a lot easier.  Things like lifeboat training and fire safety can actually be a fun cast-bonding experience if you go into it with a good attitude.”

What advice would you give to dancers on their first cruise contract?

“Hang out with other departments, not just your cast.  It will open your worldview and keep you grounded and grateful for your job as a performer.  Set financial, personal, relational, and professional goals monthly, weekly, and daily.  Wake up for breakfast.  Listen to as much live music around the ship and ask to sing with the band.  Use your gifts to serve others and learn from others.  Go on excursions and always get off the ship when you port.  Don’t spend all your port days using the Internet; budget it into your expenses or limit your time and go on adventures.  At the end of your contract you will look back on those memories and be grateful for those experiences.”

Nikki Croker

What cruise are/were you on?

“I performed on the Disney Magic and also the Disney Wonder and am now currently working for Royal Caribbean about to go on the new and biggest cruise ship ‘Quantum of the Seas.’”

How long was the cruise?

“My contracts were anywhere between 5 weeks (for a replacement) to 11 months and 23 days.”

What shows did you perform?

“Twice Charmed, Golden Mickey’s, Villains Tonight, Toy Story, ‘Welcome Aboard’ and ‘Farewell’ variety shows, as well as deck parties and theme nights in the clubs.”

Nikki Croker. Photo courtesy of Nikki Croker.

Aussie cruise ship performer Nikki Croker. Photo courtesy of Croker.

What was the dancing like?

“I guess you could describe it as ‘Disney-fied.’  Everything was fun and upbeat and smiley. Now at Royal it’s very technical, especially because I also work as an aerialist on this contract.”

What was the audition like?

“I actually auditioned for Hong Kong Disney in Melbourne (where I’m originally from) and they held on to my file and transferred it to Disney Cruise Line when I turned 18. The audition consisted of a ballet combo and a jazz combo. There was a cut and then they kept some of us for strength tests and also for face character cuts.”

What’s life like at sea?

“I actually really enjoy life at sea.  Having a schedule, food prepared and travel accommodations; it’s my idea of a paid vacation! The ‘crew mess’ can be hit or miss, but it’s never horrible. Internet is hard on the ship as you have to rely on a satellite and it can be spotty and expensive. Also the crew phone that you have to use with a calling card has a slight delay so you have to be patient when on the phone to loved ones.”

Where did you get to travel?

“I went to the Bahamas, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic and Alaska with Disney and I will be doing the inaugural cruise out of Germany back to America on Royal. Once back, we will cruise to the Bahamas and Caribbean and then travel all the way back to Barcelona.”

Nikki Croker performing an ariel skill on board the Photo courtesy of Nikki Croker.

Nikki Croker performing an ariel skill on board the Quantum of the Seas: Royal Caribbean. Photo courtesy of Croker.

What was your favourite part of cruise life?

“The people I met and the places I got to see, some of which I would never have seen if it had not been for the contracts.”

What was your least favourite part?

“Feeling like I was in a bubble sometimes and not having good access to the Internet to connect when family and friends back home.”

What advice would you give to dancers on their first cruise contract?

Go in thinking the room is going to be EXTRA, EXTRA small and that the food won’t be good, that way it’ll be a pleasant surprise when you realise it isn’t that bad! Enjoy every moment because in what other scenario would you get to do what you love while travelling and meeting so many incredible people that essentially become like family?  Nothing lasts forever and before you know it you will be back in the city auditioning and scheduling all of your side jobs.  Live in the moment!”

Beau Middlebrook

What cruise are/were you on?  How long was the cruise?

“I was on the Disney Dream out of Port Canaveral, Florida. It went to Nassau, Bahamas and Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.”

What shows did you perform?  What was the dancing like?

Beau Middlebrook. Photo courtesy of Beau Middlebrook.

Beau Middlebrook. Photo courtesy of Middlebrook.

“We performed three Main Stage shows each cruise: Villains Tonight, Golden Mickeys and Believe. They each had their own story line that involved scenes and songs from your favorite Disney classics. There was also a Pirate show featuring Jack Sparrow that we performed up on the top deck. It was something different from the other shows. I had fun with the sword fights, free fall stunt work, pyrotechnics and really just dressing up as a pirate and being a kid again. On top of that, as a dancer I had to perform in the ships nightclub. The show itself wasn’t bad but it usually started close to midnight, so having performed two sometimes three shows earlier in the evening it was always a struggle to wake up, warm up and put on a show face.

As far as the dancing goes, it definitely exceeded my original thoughts of what cruise ship dancing was. You rehearse for two months in Toronto, Canada and work with great choreographers who really find what you specifically bring to the table and they use it! For instance, I was the tumbler and they had me tumbling in every show, numerous times. You had to be pretty versatile as well—Everything from ‘Circle of Life’ to ‘Hip Hop’ in the nightclub.

I’ll never forget sailing through Hurricane Sandy! You know what they say ‘The show must go on’ and it DID! Sometimes with the highest grande jete’s you’ve ever seen and other times with the most pitiful pirouettes possible.”

What was the audition like? Was it different from your typical theatre open call?

“The audition was essentially your typical Musical Theatre audition. They had us do a 16 count ballet combination, which they made a cut from, then a musical theatre number which involved your standard kicks, turns and a chance to show your own style.”

Beau Middlebrook on the beach during an excursion while performing on the Photo courtesy of Beau Middlebrook.

Beau Middlebrook on the beach during an excursion while performing on the Disney Dream. Photo courtesy of Middlebrook.

What’s life like at sea?

“Everyone will give you their own unique answer depending on their experience at sea. I think ship life is kind of like tap dancing, you either love it or you just do it because you have to. It can be a very convenient life style—everything is done for you. You can go seven months without cooking a meal or cleaning a dish. The difference between Disney ships and most other cruise lines is that you don’t have the same ‘guest privileges.’ You are not allowed to eat, work out or party with guests on a Disney Cruise. You can, however, use the outdoor decks for sunbathing and relaxing.”

What was your favourite part of cruise life?

“Travelling! To wake up in a different ‘Port of Call’ everyday certainly beats the constant sirens and smoke of NYC.”

What was your least favourite part?

“The food! There’s nothing better than a home cooked meal! My biggest battle was the food. A large number of the crew were Asian, therefore the Crew Mess catered quite extensively for them. This resulted in the common staples such as rice and curries. Let’s just say a lot of the Americans enjoyed a good old ‘Peanut Butter and Jelly [sandwich]’ for their dinners.”

What advice would you give to dancers on their first cruise contract?

“It will be an amazing experience that you’ll never forget if you are open to it. Don’t fight the current; just let it take you where you need to go. Also pack some magnets, as all the walls are magnetic :)”

Erica Misenti

What cruise are/were you on? How long was the cruise?

“I was on the Carnival Conquest for 8 months as a Playlist performer.”

What shows did you perform? What was the dancing like?

“I performed in Divas, Latin Nights and the Brits. The cast and I counted the amount of ‘ponies’ we did in The Brits and there were over 250! Be ready to have wig changes and smile! It’s a cute and fun show. Latin Nights is full of JLO sassy moves, but it’s more a Latin American feel show than a true Latin show. Latin Nights is one show you will never get comfortable with. The costume changes are hard and you can’t be a 1/2 second late. It’s an awesome show! But get ready to work your butt off in the gym to look good in your final costume girls and boys- everyone hated them unfortunately. Divas was awesome with by far the best costumes and dances. The contemporary dance to ‘Bleeding Love’ was the only dance I could breathe in as a dancer. I truly enjoyed the movement and never got sick of performing this show.”

Erica Misenti. Photo courtesy of Erica Misenti.

Erica Misenti. Photo courtesy of Misenti.

What was the audition like?

“The audition lasted all day, at least five hours. I was asked to dance five times total, including in groups of girls that were short verses tall and learning contrasting combinations. Then I sang at the end of the day. Its one of the auditions I danced the most at.”

What’s life like at sea? 

“Life at sea can be very hard. It costs a lot of money to talk to people at home via Internet or phone, but it’s worth it for your sanity. The alcoholic drinks are dirt cheap and food is free and always available. Midnight mess on the Carnival Conquest was the best! Working out in the gym is a nice way to feel like you’re ‘leaving your job for a bit,’ but it truly becomes an entertainer’s second home. Visiting all the beautiful ports and having days off to lay out and get tan are amazing. I saved enough money to pay off my college loans too, which would have taken me 18 years otherwise!

Where did you get to travel?

“Everywhere in the eastern and western Caribbean! For example: New Orleans, Belize, Grand Cayman, Tortola, Dominica, Dominican Republic, San Juan, Key West, Miami, Nassau, St. Thomas, San Martian, Cozumel, Honduras, Grand Turk, Freeport, etc!”

What was your favourite part of cruise life?

“My favourite part was not paying rent, paying off my college loans, meeting my boyfriend, performing for good pay, visiting amazing ports, constantly being tan and in shape, meeting amazing people and growing as an individual.”

What was your least favourite part?

“Missing holidays, getting stuck in ‘ship-life’ drama, having to be ‘back-on-board’ at a certain time, always having to wear a name tag even on my days off, and watching my friends and boyfriend leave because we all had different contracts.”

What advice would you give to dancers on their first cruise contract?

“Don’t feel bad about spending money on yourself to keep you sane. You need Internet and you need to call home. You need to get off the ship and enjoy the beautiful ports; don’t just sleep in because you might never be back there. Go on excursions! Work hard and make friends! Have fun and invite your family to cruise if you can! You get a discounted rate with the company after 6 months.”

Joyah Spangler

What cruise are/were you on?  How long was the cruise?

“I performed on Holland America Line.  We rehearsed in New York for two months and performed on the ship for six months after that.”

What shows did you perform?  What was the dancing like?

Joyah Spangler. Photo courtesy of Joyah Spangler.

Joyah Spangler. Photo courtesy of Spangler.

“We were an inaugural cast, creating seven brand new shows for Holland America—due to time constraints, however, we only ended up performing five on board while the next cast worked out the kinks for the final two shows.  We were fortunate enough to have two Broadway veterans as our choreographers who were long-time company members of Fosse.  Our choreography was highly influenced by their experience in that show.”

What was the audition like? 

“It was a marathon!  First there was your regular audition with two short combinations.  Then I sang three songs from my book.  The very next morning I came in and did five dance combinations (jazz, ballet, hip hop, character, and partnering) from 9am until 1pm, had a quick lunch, then stayed to sing three out of the five songs they had given me to prepare the night before.  Next, I was asked to do harmony work.  The following day we had to do personality interviews for the Holland America team.  Two days later, I had the job!  It was quite an exciting week!”

What’s life like at sea?

“It’s kind of lonely living at sea.  While you have a great built-in group of friends with your cast mates, you can get homesick for friends and family very easily—especially when Internet is hard to come by.  There’s lots of free time, which is amazing, but it’s easy to waste it.  In terms of eating, we had the same food as our passengers…which was amazing!  It was really delicious food, but eating healthy while on the ship can become a struggle.  At the same time, the cast was fortunate enough to have access to the passenger gym.  Another great part of performing on a ship is the amount of money you save since you’re not paying for room, board, or travel expenses.”

Where did you get to travel?

Joyah Spangler visiting the rock of Gibraltar on an excursion from the Photo courtesy of Joyah Spangler.

Joyah Spangler visiting the rock of Gibraltar on an excursion from the Holland America Line. Photo courtesy of Spangler.

“Where do I begin?!  Let’s see: Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida, US Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Monaco, Spain, France, England, Turkey, Belgium, Estonia, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Norway—all in just six months!”

What was your favourite part of cruise life?

“Travelling!  I feel as if I got paid to go explore all of these beautiful places.  Often, I would volunteer to be a shore excursion escort if I had the day off.  This meant I would get to do all of the passengers’ expensive activities at no extra cost!”

What was your least favourite part?

“It’s a lonely life at sea, especially while in Europe where it was hard to stay in contact with friends and family back home.”

What advice would you give to dancers on their first cruise contract?

“Don’t waste your time while on the ship.  During our down time dancers were trying out choreography on each other, building dance reels and taking voice lessons from the vocal captain.  The industry keeps moving forward while you are at sea—don’t waste this beautiful chance you are given to grow and create while you have the free time and free space!”

Photo (top): Erica Misenti standing on the beach in front of the Carnival Conquest. Photo courtesy of Erica Misenti.

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