(LifeWire) -- For older men who know the difference between a waltz and fox-trot, being a cruise ship host offers evenings in the dance floor spotlight and days in the ocean sunlight traveling to places they would have never seen otherwise.
David Larsen dances with Carol Lee Miles aboard the ship Crystal Symphony during a 2006 cruise through the Panama Canal.
"I've done well over 100 (cruises), including two 100-day world cruises, and I've visited 116 countries," says host David Larsen, a 64-year-old retired engineer from Florida. His favorite ports are Venice, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Monte Carlo.
Yet the life of a host, the retired or semi-retired men whose job it is to entertain older single women as a dance partner or a sterling conversationalist, has its challenges.
"If the band plays lots of quick tempo songs, the legs do get a workout. We do about 60 dances a night," says Larsen.
And then, there are the sticky social moments.
"I have been propositioned by a few married ladies who actually had their husbands on board at the time. Thankfully, they probably had a little too much champagne and didn't remember it the next day," Larsen adds.
Graceful on and off the dance floor
Although dancing on a cruise ship may sound like a dream job, being a social butterfly can be hard work. In addition to gliding across the dance floor for about four hours each evening, duties include attending dance classes on sea days, hosting tables in the dining room and sometimes assisting tour guides on shore excursions.
"Hosting a dining table for eight or 10 means keeping the conversation moving and interesting, which of course can be tedious at times," says 78-year-old Richard Craig, a retired architectural designer from New York City whose ocean travels have taken him to almost every country in the world with a sea port.
"The focus is on making sure the single guests are having a nice time, whether it be dancing or just socializing, laughing, drinking, making friends and introducing them to other guests," says Joseph M. Slye of Virginia. The 60-year-old host was a public relations director for the federal government and now he's now a part-time consultant.
It's not just singles (older and younger) that are looking for a whirl around the dance floor. Some married women with non-dancing husbands are as eager for a dance as anyone. Hosts have to be willing to dance with all interested ladies, regardless of skill level, age or marital status. Favoritism is a no-no, as is any kind of romantic dalliance.
"Crystal does not allow any hanky panky between the host and the lady guests while on board," says Sheila Hoffman, the ambassador host coordinator for Crystal Cruises, adding that a guilty host is ejected at the next port and left to his own devices to get home.
"That doesn't mean that they cannot exchange addresses and phone numbers once the cruise is over. Some romances have led to marriage, so sometimes I actually feel like a marriage broker," Hoffman adds.
The business of hosting
Dance hosts were first used in 1986 aboard the now-defunct Royal Cruise Lines; today, many lines press them into service, especially on their longer cruises. Thanks to the popularity of television shows like "Dancing With the Stars" and the number of older single or widowed women who find cruise ships an enjoyable getaway, the need for male dance hosts doesn't appear likely to wane any time soon. Some sailings have as many as eight hosts on board to take care of 20 or 30 or more single ladies.
"Cruises provide a high level of safety and security as well as built-in opportunities for socializing many senior ladies enjoy," says David Morris, executive vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Silversea Cruises. "Some women won't consider a cruise that doesn't have dance hosts."
Agencies that place the hosts, including Sixth Star Entertainment, Compass Speakers and Entertainment and To Sea With Z, typically charge dance hosts a fee in the neighborhood of $25 a day to work on such cruise lines as Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, Holland America and Cunard. Crystal Cruises has an in-house host coordinator, however, and there's no fee attached.
All the cruise lines provide the hosts with free room and board, plus the entertainment and activities available to all guests. Some cruise lines throw in free airfare and a stipend for dry cleaning and buying drinks for passengers.
To be hired, potential hosts must produce reference letters, agree to background checks, and take a test or send in a video as proof they are proficient in standard dances, including the mambo, rumba, cha-cha, tango and swing. On top of everything else, hosts are expected to be mannerly, friendly and reasonably fit, whether they're 40-somethings or pushing 75.
Aside from the chance to travel, what other reasons drive these men to the high seas after a full-time work career that's typically kept them land lubbers?
"Most of these men are retired but still like to feel needed," says Tracy Robison of Compass Speakers and Entertainment. Indeed, sometimes a cruise host fills a need far beyond that of a mere dance partner.
"On a Europe cruise I had asked a lady to dance. She hesitated, then agreed and hobbled onto the dance floor holding on to my arm," remembers Ed Champy, a 71-year-old from New Hampshire who's been on more than 75 cruises. "We danced gently in place. She told me she was a stroke victim and said that I had given her a new outlook on life and that she wouldn't let her problem stand in her way ever again." E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Heidi Sarna is a travel writer based in Singapore.