Performing at sea isn’t easy. Here are a few things I realised which made all the difference, and helped me rediscover the love of being a professional dancer on board.

It was 2016. Ten of us were huddled together waiting on the pier, the ship towering over us. The process to embark sure was slow. An Italian springtime sun tried its best to warm us up while we wondered what lay ahead for us beyond the gangway.

Looking through the fence at the guests pouring out the ship and crew members flitting back and forth, I noticed someone official-looking calling the shots. He wasn’t in a sailor’s uniform, but a suit.

I thought to myself, ‘Who on earth wears a 3-piece suit at 9 o’clock in the morning? That’s a bit much’. Turns out that’s simply the world of cruising. Always looking the part, no matter the hour. Smiling, greeting, making sure things run on time. Eventually it was time for him to usher us on board, with a smile, a greeting and making sure we were on time.

It was my first contract as a dancer at sea. I wish I could say it was the first of loads, but sadly global events of 2020 interrupted things in a way no one expected. Coming from a ballet ; contemporary background, stepping into this cruise world was an awakening and a half!
Rehearsals involved grappling with learning so many new styles of dance, fighting my ballet body every day and making it look like I knew what I was doing (which I totally didn’t, it took a few months of really moulding myself into a new sort of dancer!).

But that was part of the process…which at the end, was rewarding.

I had proven to myself that it wasn’t impossible to break out of the ballet bubble. I could bang on a pair of heels and embody totally different characters. Gosh, dare I say it was eventually liberating once I’d made peace with this complete change of direction! Embracing this newly-discovered alter ego on stage was incredible (and fun).

And so was learning a few things along the way…things that enriched my dancing; reignited my love for it, but also enriched life beyond the confines of that micro-world called ‘ship life’.

And if you’ve ever considered performing on cruise ships, here are 7 tips and mindset shifts that could help you a lot (because they sure helped me).


Integrity’s underrated, ambition overrated

As one of my uni lecturers used to say, ‘There’s a lot to unpack here’. And I don’t mean make up and costumes. Unless you’re doing topnotch theatre productions on ships (think full scale musicals and ballets), chances are you’re doing a wide variety of exciting work mixed with a lot of the ridiculous. It’s easy to think ‘Oh my word, please let the sea part and swallow me whole’ or ‘This is kind of beneath me, I didn’t train my whole life to do a silly flashmob’.

But as I said, it’s a mixed bag.

And the way to keep those self-defeating thoughts at bay, is to realise and accept that doing your job with integrity is surprisingly satisfying. So, whilst doing that silly flashmob, or little fashion show (wait, I have to model as a dancer?!) or freestyling with guests at a themed party on the blustery top deck (when you’d rather be knocking back a spritz or two in crew bar)…in that moment, it’s about doing it well. And knowing that your minor, “silly” part in the bigger picture, is contributing to making someone’s dream cruise a sparkling, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

One they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

Let that sink in.

For some people, they’ve saved up for years to be there with all of you, or they’re finally ticking something off their bucket list. And doing your job with integrity just adds to the shininess of their new golden memory.

When I got this into my head, I found I could enjoy doing even the cringe-worthy things. At the end of the day, it’s about having fun with your fellow performers and the guests. And bonus, we were getting paid to do exactly that!

Now, about ambition.

A best friend and worst enemy to a dancer, right? We’re drilled to have heaps of it yet somehow keep it at arm’s length. Personally, I realised that having ambition to be more, do more, achieve more was kind of overrated when I had the whole integrity thing in place.

This concept of ambition (and having heaps of it) tends to exist in a negative way when there’s the assumption that working on a cruise ship is somehow ‘less’ than dancing for, let’s say, NDT or the Royal Ballet. In simpler terms, it’s easy to feel like you’re not where you ‘should’ be, because you’re miles out at sea instead.

But in the bigger scheme of things, does it really matter where you dance? And for who? And the names and titles attached to it? If you’re having fun, learning and being challenged as a dancer then I’m going with ‘No, it doesn’t matter’.

Coupled with that is the fact that ranks amongst dancers at sea don’t exist, except for ‘dancer’ and ‘manager’ (or dance captain, depending which company you’re with). Therefore, you can’t aspire to be a soloist or principal. Simple.

All together, it’s then so easy to push that concept of ambition aside…the kind of ambition that makes you feel like you’re just not good enough, because you’re ‘not there yet’ (wherever ‘there’ might be for you).

And it’s especially easy to do when you and your cast love being on stage, you’re all having fun and the guests are soaking up every dazzling moment of a ‘night out’ in the theatre.

Without that negative sense of ambition, you’re free to simply enjoy what you do and dance with gusto.


Sleeping late is not okay, it’s…

This one comes straight from someone who loves to be up early, make the most of the daytime hours and then snuggle down when darkness descends…and when this doesn’t happen, the day was wasted. Oh, the drama.

But working on a ship until late at night, and then staying awake till even later because you need to wind down, makes being an early bird really sucky.

Sure, there’ll be mornings where you have no choice, because you have to show your smiling face and report for some or other duty. But when you have the choice, trust me, you make the choice to stay under the covers.

And this is more than just ‘okay’. It’s crucial.

You very quickly realise how important sleep is when you’re living a life without a pause button.

We’ve all heard the lectures on the benefits of sleep and when you’re young, you’re like ‘Yeah, I’ll sleep later…in life’.

Sadly, it doesn’t work this way.

Your body’s chance to recover, recalibrate and be ready for the next dancing onslaught happens when you’re tucked up in bed and dreaming of what you’re going to eat in that next Italian port. (And yes, food is a thang. You’ll see why soon).

In a nutshell, I learnt to give myself permission to change my rhythms, to not feel guilty about sleeping late and to accept that rest is the key to enjoying what I do (and doing it well).

Naturally this carried over to real life. It’s something I allow myself to do if I need to, because a rested person is a happy person!


Your mission: Eat (well)

I know that some cruise companies make sure their crew members eat well (and a lot). But there are some companies where unfortunately food in the staff mess isn’t a top priority. And you need to be quite creative with the meals you put together for yourself from the buffet. (I became a pro at creating epic buddha bowls. A fancy way of saying I basically just threw anything and everything together, and with a bit of cheese and olive oil, I was good to go).

Because you might not get the most nutrient-dense food on board, treating yourself to a good meal ashore every now and then becomes a must.

Spending a bit of your hard-earned salary on this is worth it. Your body needs to be nourished to keep pushing it to perform day after day, for months at sea.

The importance of this in general is obvious. Money spent on good quality food is never money wasted. Your body (and mood) will say ‘Thank you’ and ‘Yes, please’. Every time.

So even though the topics of sleep and food seem like common sense, they’re not always given the attention they deserve. And we know, it’s one thing to talk about it, and another thing to do it and develop these healthy habits in a challenging environment.

But they will be the kind of can’t-live-without habits that’ll make your time at sea that much easier (and enjoyable).


No-one likes a diva, here’s why…

Working in an intense environment that is a ship, very quickly you see that arrogance and a bad attitude doesn’t help anyone’s popularity on board.

Thankfully this wasn’t really my own personal problem…but we all know at least one dancer who thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread…and can do whatever they want, whenever they want.

And get away with it.

Sadly (or thankfully?), on a ship, it’s almost impossible to be like that.


Because it’s a well-oiled machine in all senses. Meaning that everyone has their place and function, and being a diva equals disrupting that delicate balance and causing trouble. And having this kind of rep for being a diva will get you nowhere.

In the cruise ship world of team players (where your strength is being part of the pack) to be dramatic, brattish and downright unpleasant to work with means you’ll pretty quickly become a black sheep. And word might just get around that you’re not nice to work with. And with unpredictable contract work, we all know what that can mean for the future of a dancer…

Essentially, it pays to ditch that kind of behaviour sharp-sharp, and stop thinking you’re God’s gift to dance.

Life on board is hard enough as it is, you don’t want to make it harder for yourself (or for your fellow cast members).

(Okay, that’s enough tough love).


Make friends with loneliness

Maybe you’re now saying to yourself, ‘But Che, you just wrote about being part of the pack, how can you get lonely surrounded by 1 300 other crew members?’

Oh, the irony.

But this is the reality.

It happens to the best of us. Away from home and all things familiar and comforting, you’ll definitely go through phases of (intense) loneliness.

It’s normal. And it’s something to embrace.

Many people are petrified of feeling lonely, but once you find yourself swimming in that sensation, you realise it’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just a bit uncomfortable.

And I learnt a few things to cope with that.

First up, remind yourself that it’ll pass. As does everything in life. Things are always shifting on board – people come and go, situations change, sensations appear and disappear. It’s part of the ebb and flow of sailing life. And so is loneliness.

Secondly,(and this is the good news), all it takes is finding one awesome partner in crime to obliterate that loneliness. Just that spark of connection, that budding friendship, makes you feel human again.

And you realise you don’t need masses of friends (not in ‘real life’, or life on the ships). Just a handful of special people can make your contract unforgettable. I’m sure many seafarers can attest to this…the friendships made on board can be the most treasured and deeply-felt. Ones that exist for a lifetime.

And lastly, there’s freedom in this loneliness. Yeah, sounds weird but there’s truth there. You can take advantage of being free to spend your time however you want, go wherever you want, and whenever you wish. There’s absolute liberation from following a group and moulding yourself to adapt to others. As a loner and someone who doesn’t always fit in right away, I relished this and used it to my advantage. I accepted my loneliness, and made sure I used my freedom to explore the ports in a way that was meaningful to me. And as time passed, of course I found my groove and connected with amazing people who made that particular contract special.

The loneliness passed. It always did. And always will.


We’re more versatile than we think (and, at any age!)

Remember I mentioned earlier how I fought with having to learn new styles and feel like an absolute noob, working beyond my ballet comfort zone?

Well, when I eventually got over this hump, I thought to myself ‘Hey, we’re capable of so much more than we expect! Look at me actually enjoying this and not feeling like an idiot anymore!’ I just had to push through all those gawky, embarrassing moments of learning a new dance style where I felt like a three-legged giraffe.

And this idea applies to many things in life.

At some point, we’ll be ‘beginners’ a few times in our lives. If you have an open mind, and embrace being a ‘student’, many new things can be achieved. This is a blessing, not an obstacle.

If you’re wondering why I mentioned age, here’s why.

I’m a bit fixated on this age thing. Besides this awful misconception of not being able to learn or do anything beyond a certain age (because the brain ‘just isn’t the same)’, there’s also the idea that dancers have a fixed shelf-life.

You train, you peak, you bow out gracefully…all before the age of 35. Or something like that. We often have lurking in the back of our minds this little voice that says ‘You’d better start planning your retirement and imminently daunting career change…soon’.

I beg to differ.

We all know of principal ballerinas who dance well into their late forties, and the same applies to dancers on the ships. If you take good care of yourself, keep your attitude in check, and have a curiosity to learn, you can keep going for ages.

I know dancers (and acrobats and ice skaters) on board who are way past their 30’s. They’re still killing it on stage and love what they do. Sure, they might need to take it easy on the late nights in crew bar or do a proper warm up before performing (unlike those 20-somethings who jump out of bed and straight into their dance sneakers)…but they’re doing their jobs and milking it while they can.

Because if the body’s still able, then why not?

Keep kicking that leg, doing those splits and donning those feathers!


Be more than just ‘flexible’

I don’t mean just be physically flexible…I mean be mentally flexible.

Reality is, as much as you’ll have a well structured schedule to stick to with Swiss precision timing, things happen. Whether it’s with the ship, the cast, the entertainment schedule…could be anything.

Basically, you need to learn to go with the flow, and be able to switch your focus on and off as needed.

Do you need to suddenly get backstage and cram your usual hour and a half of prep into 15 minutes because there was a miscommunication about the schedule? You do it, pronto (even though you’re legit angry).

Woke up at 07.00 for a disembarkation duty and all of a sudden ‘you’re not needed’? Argh. Just roll with it and see it as a chance to actually eat breakfast for once (because usually you’re faaaast asleep at that time, remember?)

This mental flexibility works so well in ‘real life’ beyond the metallic confines of that floating city.

Be adaptable. Spontaneous. And you’ll stress less.


You CAN control your nerves

As someone who used to get so nervous before performing (especially a new show) I realised I had to find a way to manage those sweaty palms, stomach somersaults and fears of blanking on stage.

Dancing on a ship, there are just so many other variables at play that it’s easy for nerves to be amplified.

There’s the motion of the ship if the sea’s a bit rough, lightening-fast quick changes in the smallest (and darkest) of spaces, not a sprung floor in sight (at least on my ships) and certainly not, um, even smooth stage floors. So, there are many things out there just waiting to trip you up and catch you out.

But when you realise the power of self talk and how you can rationalise yourself back to a calm state…game-changer.

All it takes is reminding yourself that you are prepared for this, you’ll do your best and that is good enough, any mistakes are not the end of the world, and you’re here to have fun.

I know that a couple of these points completely go against our vigorous dance training from childhood…but this is more of the reality that we need to embrace to be mentally healthy as disciplined, committed, hard-working dancers.

And we need these thoughts to actually enjoy what we get to do for a living. (Damn, I wish I still did…but, life).

As you can see, these 7 things are fairly simple…but they made all the difference. I rediscovered my love of dancing professionally, fully immersed myself in ship life, and allowed myself to create ways that supported me physically and mentally…which meant I could breeze through months-long contracts much better than before. With just a few mindset shifts, perhaps this experience can be something for you too!


Ché Maria