Early in the cruise a dance competition is announced for later in the week. Eight ship’s officers who can dance will partner eight passengers. The ship’s version is called Dancing with the Stripes.
When my new table friends learn that I am a former dancer, a retired dance teacher who chaired dance programs at several universities and has taught ballroom dance for cruise lines in years past, one of the men suggests, “Well, MM, I hope that we get to see you in the dance contest!”
“No way! Absolutely not! I’m much too old to attempt that. I loved my career as a dancer and dance teacher, but am always sad when I see dancers who don’t know when it was time to quit performing. In my salad days, I had standards. I still do. Let’s face it, no one wants to watch an old broad struggling to stay vertical.”
The evening of the contest, our group claims a big table near the dance floor and orders a round of drinks. The cruise director draws names from a big bowl. I am surprised to hear “MM from Houston!”
Surprised is an understatement. I am frankly horrified and acutely aware that I’m not dressed for a ballroom evening. That night I dressed casual, wearing black leggings, black flats, and my husband’s yellow dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I tried to dress up the very comfortable sporty ensemble by wearing an orchid lei I bought in Maui and I look like an over-age teenager starring in Gidget Does Hawaii.
My group howls with glee at my incredulous expression. One of the men at our table pulls reluctant “little ol’ me” out of my chair and gently pushes me toward the dance floor.
Welcoming me to that arena is my partner, Ricardo. He is a handsome thirty-something ship’s officer, standing tall and erect in his crisp dark uniform with stripes on his cuffs and epaulets. A real doll! I apologize to the young officer from Colombia that I wasn’t what he hoped for; he deserves someone younger and cuter for a partner.
I look up to him and ask, “Have you ever competed in this dance contest before?”
“Oh, yes. I‘ve entered five times but never even made it to the finals.” He really wants to win. I feel for him.
“Okay then, Ricardo! Let’s go for it! I know it’ll be like dancing with your grandmother, but I’m an experienced dancer and will give it my best shot.”
The ship’s format is similar to the TV show Dancing with the Stars. There are three expert judges, a band on stage and an audience on three sides of a large ballroom floor. Numbers are pinned on our backs, and the exuberant cruise director takes center stage with much fanfare.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for our fabulous contestants.” The audience applauds on cue. “These couples will now demonstrate their dancing skills by performing eight dances.”
I try not to look shocked, but eight dances with a new partner? What? With no practice? Come on! They’ve got to be kidding!
I think, “Hope the ship’s doctor is close at hand.”
The band plays the Tea for Two Cha Cha. Ricardo and I lock eyes and smile. Then we assume the Latin closed dance position and begin. “Okay, MM, elbows and “knockers” up! It‘s show time!”
I am pleasantly surprised at Ricardo’s partnering skills in the Cha Cha. It is one of my favorite dances so I let go and begin to demonstrate that my hips still know how to move, and that I have been around the dance floor more than once. After that, we do the Rumba and Mambo.
While dancing the Mambo, I glance over at one of the other couples. They look like they are involved in some kind of primitive combat using fists and stomps. They don’t have a clue about what a Mambo should be. Their inability gives me additional confidence and new hope.
We make the cut. We are now left on the dance floor with only five other couples.
The next dance is the Jitterbug. My husband and I love this dance, and over the years, heads turned when we danced it. It is a great dance to teach, and Ricardo follows my lead as I do the “slow, slow, quick, quick” basic step. My flat shoes turn out to be a good thing. With the basic step mastered, we take off with several exuberant vintage variations as the band gives homage to Glenn Miller’s In the Mood.
Even though I am much older than the other dancers on the floor, I am pleased that I can still turn on some pizazz. Yippee for us! We are doing well so we make the cut again. Just four couples left. Not bad at all.
My husband is beaming and friends at our table are clapping and cheering for Ricardo and me. The crowd seems to enjoy seeing couples grappling with space and rhythm. I think that it is probably the same thrill that some get while watching a demolition derby.
“Next, dancers, please show us the Tango!”
The band strikes up a very sensual rendition of Besamé Mucho; we command the dance floor with pretentious flair. The slower tempo enables us to ham it up; we take the tango to a new, over-the-top dramatic level.
The next dance is the Waltz. Oh my! It is not Ricardo’s forté. He just can’t find the beat. Uh-oh! We are in trouble!
My dance teacher mentality takes control. I perform a ventriloquist skill, not moving my lips while I smile and utter, “One, two three, One two three, One two three. Follow me, Ricardo. Stay on the beat!” To his credit, Ricardo has the good sense to follow Mama. We get through it with only few missteps. We are still here. WOW! Only two couples left! My heart is beating so hard I think it is going to explode. Talk about a cardio workout!
The competitive tension builds and the lounge fills to capacity with people standing wherever they can find space. It is an actual “Standing Room Only” event.
The cruise director takes center stage and makes a big deal of the next announcement: “And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Celebrity Star Finals of The Dancing with the Stripes contest. Let’s hear it for MM from Houston and Ricardo.” Thunderous applause. My group stands and yells, “You go girl” and “Knock ‘em dead, MM.”
“And now for Cindy from Omaha and Robert.” More applause, but I think not quite as much as ours. Of course that might be due to my competitive spirit and wishful thinking.
“And now, the last two couples will perform two dances for us. First is the Disco.”
Dammit. Ricardo wasn’t even alive during the Disco era. The band belts out the song made famous by Gloria Gaynor in the ‘70s, I Will Survive. How appropriate! Oh well, what the hell? MM, just do it!”
I rely on kinetic memory from 40 years ago and really “put out.” Ricardo follows me like a happy puppy. We are doing astonishingly well. Shades of Saturday Night Fever. It almost doesn’t matter that I feel a groin muscle pop while “dipping.” The show must go on.
The Disco is both exhilarating and exhausting. Once finished, I prop myself up against the stage and try not to hyperventilate. I’m sweating bullets and my mascara is starting to drip, but my adrenaline is pumping. Onward!
“And now our final dance… Country Western.” I am so relieved. I can dig up all sorts of simple square dance and Country Western dance motifs that won’t be life-threatening.
Nice wish, but my partner now sees himself as a combination of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Fred Astaire. While I am happy he is feeling confident, I almost die when he proposes, “Let’s go aerial!”
Aerial? AERIAL? No way! What is he thinking? Ricardo has forgotten that I am a woman of a certain age. This old dancer hasn’t left the ground in over 30 years. Now this partner is going to attempt death-defying skills. Oh my God!
Soon his hands are on my waist, and he lifts me in to the air. I go up, Up, UP! I have to watch that my head doesn’t hit the mirror ball hanging over the dance floor. The climax of Boot Scootin’ Boogie is building to a mighty crescendo, and the audience is on its feet clapping and whistling. I hope the ship has a defibrillator nearby.
When my feet finally hit the floor again, Ricardo begins a spinning turn that goes on for eternity. I hold on to him for dear life and am so glad when I hear the music end. We are both still alive and breathing.
Ricardo is so proud that I swear he has added three inches to his six-foot stature. He keeps on hugging me. “Oh MM, your face is beet red! Are you okay? Here, take my coat.”
He removes his officer’s coat and drapes it around my shoulders, probably something he has learned in First Aid to prevent aging victims from going into shock. What a sweet boy! His mother has raised him right.
The judges confer, and the audience yells “THREE.” Our number. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the winners of the Dancing with the Stripes Competition are MM and Ricardo!”
The ship’s captain comes forth to present THE BIG PRIZE. With all the noise, I can’t quite understand what the captain is saying as I accept my prize. When I look at it, my jaw drops! Such a monumental disappointment! A lousy Celebrity Cruise Lines T-shirt! Unbelievable! I am experiencing painful damage to my aging musculature and almost expire, and all for a crummy cotton T-shirt?
Ricardo notices my dismay at the prize. He gives me a squeeze and whispers, ”Don’t worry, MM. You and your husband will be my guests for a fancy Champagne dinner tomorrow night.”
I truly love Champagne! Ricardo’s generous gift suddenly makes the whole evening worth the effort. I reach up and give the dear boy a motherly kiss on the cheek, and look to the heavens. There is a God! I survived to drink Champagne!
As Jack and I leave the ballroom, my tablemates, other passengers, and the crew treat me like I am a celebrity; still, I need to attend to my throbbing groin muscle without further adieu. “Can you find me a bag of ice?” I ask one of the waiters He runs to the kitchen and returns with a twenty-pound bag.
I laugh and thank him. “Oh my. That should do it.”
My supportive husband carries the huge bag of ice and helps me limp back to our cabin. I barely make it to the bed, where I collapse without bothering to undress. He tucks me in with the entire big sack of ice wrapped in a towel.
Jack bends down, gives me a pleasant kiss, and says, “You are an amazing woman.”
Author’s Comment: Dance in all its forms has been important my entire life. Even as a toddler, I loved to dance with my father and would accompany my parents to dances. My unexpected participation in the Dancing with the Stripes contest provided me with a humorous story that friends encouraged me to share. As a wife, I view my husband’s simple statement at the end of the evening to be the best prize of all. As a writer, I consider his comment to be an epilogue to my winning an exhausting dance contest with a dashing young ship’s officer.