Trading Loafers For Dancing Shoes On P&O's Strictly Come Dancing Cruise
Somewhere over that watery horizon lies the Sahara, I thought, as I lurched past one of the windows of my floating ballroom: what a strange place to be learning the cha-cha-cha. And then I trod on someone’s foot, and decided I really should concentrate.
Not least because I was on a Strictly Come Dancing cruise to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries with P&O, and my dance partner and I seemed to be on a collision course with Craig Revel Horwood – of all the judges from the British TV show, probably the most dreaded for his withering put-downs. Surely here, I thought, far from the landlocked calm of a BBC studio, in the middle of the Atlantic, he would be more forgiving?
If I looked less like a ballroom dancer than a drunken dodgem driver, I figured I could always blame the ocean swell. Unfortunately for me, the sea today was as flat as a dance floor.
The show has run to 13 series in Britain, with millions of viewers. The format has been licensed to more than 40 countries. And cruising would seem the ideal format as it broadens its horizons even further.
As with most cruise holidays, the schedule for the Strictly voyage on Oriana offered dance classes and ballroom evenings for passengers, as well as tributes to musicals and other shows by the resident theatre company. But the cruise also featured special extras, from performances by the professional dancers on Strictly to an interview with Craig – and a contest for passengers chaired by the fastidious judge.
The mere thought struck horror in my knees. I have a troubled relationship with dance.
After an ugly struggle with salsa and two drawn-out but ultimately doomed attempts at tango, I settled on jazz dance – happily, you don’t have a partner to exasperate. I went several times a week for seven years, until I moved home.
I suppose the fact that after 1,000 hours of classes I still enjoyed the challenge of the 'Absolute beginner' level confirmed that my talents lie elsewhere but I adored the exercise, the discipline, and the luxury of losing myself for an hour in intoxicating music without ever having to justify myself to anyone. Which is why the idea of performing to Craig gave me a feeling akin to seasickness.
I joined the cruise in Madeira. Glamorous costumes from the show glittered around the decks of the Oriana, and at the main ballroom, Harlequins, couples were practising their moves for the evening’s dancing.
I was relieved to learn that the ballroom is close to the medical centre – and impressed by the stamina of one passenger who had used both. “I was jiving in my ballgown,” said 67-year-old Pauline Johnston, from Banbury, Oxfordshire, “when I caught a heel in the fabric, went flying, and broke my arm.”
That was at 11.30pm – yet she carried on dancing until 2am, before having it X-rayed and plastered. “I should be wearing a sling,” she said, “but you can’t dance in a sling, can you? I’ll put it back on now, though, in case I’m caught.”
Pauline’s friend Alicia Mumford – whom she met through dance classes back home – was less impressed. “It’s amazing the lengths someone will go to to get Craig’s attention,” she said. “But it worked.” Now Pauline proudly sports a Craig autograph on her plaster cast.
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Not all passengers I spoke to confessed to a passion for Strictly. Many had booked before P&O had announced the theme.
But the popularity of the trip’s Strictly events suggested there were plenty of closet fans on board, too. The 674-seat Theatre Royal was overflowing for a lyrical and emotional performance by two professional dancers from the show, Ian Waite (from an earlier series) and Natalie Lowe; their grace clearly rubbed off on the rather less youthful audience, which leapt to its feet with astonishing agility to applaud.
The theatre was packed again – 15 minutes before opening – for the interview with Craig, who charmed passengers with tales of 30 years working in the theatre as a dancer, choreographer and director. They queued in large numbers, too, to be photographed grinning with the Strictly judge whose strictness has made him the pantomime villain they love to boo: his damning assessments have ranged from a withering “cha-cha-cha chavvy” for Patsy Kensit to “overwhelmingly awful” for Ann Widdecombe.
What sort of people, you might wonder, would subject themselves to such merciless critique on their holiday? A pair of honeymooners, for starters: Daniel and Jenifer Simpson boarded Oriana the day after their wedding, with just three hours’ sleep, and were soon selected with two other couples to compete in the Strictly Come Dancing Showcase.
At the rehearsal, Jenifer confessed it was "nerve-racking – we’ve only been dancing ballroom six months".
They had a tough act to follow: a dazzling and sensual display of Latin dancing by a second pair of professionals from the show, Katya Virshilas (from an earlier series) and Pasha Kovalev. Next, the pros joined Craig at a desk to watch as each of the competing couples took it in turn to glide across the melodies of a long waltz.
The audience applauded rapturously, but Craig sweetened his words for no one, not even the happy couple: “A complete and absolute honeymoon disaaaster: lumpy, wooden and nervous.”
The gentleman in the next couple fared even worse: “A personality bypass – completely charmless, darling.”
After some gentler words from Katya and Pasha, the honeymooners seemed heroically positive: “We expected Craig to be honest, and he was,” Jenifer said. “It’s encouragement – we’re going back to the dancing lessons, we’re definitely not giving up. We’d come again even if only to watch the professionals dancing – it’s by far the best holiday we’ve had.”
For my own trial – in the form of a dance class with Craig as guest expert – I wanted to be well prepared. Nutrition was clearly not going to be a problem, with six restaurants to choose from, including two waiter-served restaurants and two fine-dining restaurants (for an extra charge).
And a healthy appetite? I was struck by how mine grew every day.
As for exercise, I must have spent hours ambling indecisively from one counter to the next in the two all-day buffet restaurants – not to mention wandering the corridors of the ship, because even after three days on board I could not remember where anything was. I even managed a short stroll around the elegant 18th Century streets in the heart of Lisbon, before feeling unexpectedly peckish and stopping for a bite.
Back on board, I was impressed by the spacious top-deck gym, and its fleet of treadmills and exercise machines. These faced a panoramic window looking out over the bow and across the open sea – unusually for a gym, you feel your exertions are actually getting you somewhere.
I fancied riding one of the cycle machines and pretending I was single-handedly powering the world’s biggest pedalo. I also wanted to try one of the early morning classes – yoga, 'fab abs' or 'stretch and relax' – but I found that by the time I had hiked to the front of the ship, scaled a couple of flights of stairs and glimpsed the ships’ resident dancers working out, I was hungry enough to go straight to breakfast.
When I arrived at my packed dance class – beginner’s cha-cha-cha – I knew I had little chance of outclassing Patsy Kensit. The resident dance instructors on this year’s Strictly cruises, Julie and Simon Curtin, demonstrated the steps, and as I moved from one partner to the next, praying that for once I wouldn’t kick any shins or crush any toes, I tried desperately to relax and enjoy myself – pretty much impossible, when Craig stopped to watch.
His feedback was no surprise. “You were nervous, stiff, agitated, wooden – as if you had a rod placed firmly up your a--- and you weren’t going to release it.”
He gave me four out of 10 – and some encouraging tips, too: “Work on your technique, especially your footwork, and you will get that lovely licentious lascivious hip action we’re looking for.”
As for our overall standard as beginners: “Very, very poor – but how brilliant and brave of everyone to try, it’s fantastic to see you all dancing!”
Maybe that’s the important thing – just to keep dancing, regardless of talent or technique. Simon and Julie told me about the partially sighted 94-year-old gentleman they taught Argentine tango on an earlier cruise; about passengers with learning disabilities, and others in callipers, who they had all led on to the dance floor.
The Curtins only took up dancing in their early 40s, inspired by series two of Strictly; they applied to join P&O 18 months ago, intending to do two or three cruises a year – and have already clocked up 21.
I began to fantasise that I, too, although still painfully clumsy at 50, might nonetheless one day blossom as a dancer, and twirl my way around the globe. Craig was supportive: “I think if you were 90 you could have a dream to run away and be a dancer,” he said.
He was also uncharacteristically diplomatic: “I would be concerned for your mental welfare if you said you wanted to be a professional dancer,” he said, “but you could become a pro as a teacher.”
I was not the only passenger to be inspired. After one of the shows, I bumped into the very first couple I spoke to on Oriana: Philip and Karen Norman – retired police officer and civil servant, respectively – from Pontypool in South Wales.
They had booked the cruise – their seventh – before the Strictly theme was announced; neither had even watched the show before last year. “We danced 30 years ago but gave up,” said Karen. “This has definitely sparked something. We’re signing up for classes as soon as we get home.”
I know I’m not the only one dreaming of dancing into the sunset for decades to come.
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This article was written by James Bedding from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.