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By Sarah Carlson
Dancing professionally for cruise ships, theme parks, and celebrations—what could be more fun, right? You could be traveling the world, dancing in an exquisitely produced musical revue one night and sipping a cocktail in a gentle ocean breeze the next. Or performing with gusto to an audience of gleeful spectators who just got off the nearest roller coaster. Or dressing up in funky attire and persuading partygoers to join you in finding your groove … and getting paid for it! If you are social, outgoing, and love to perform, you may find the idea of working in these jobs very appealing. But what do seasoned professionals who have tested the waters have to say? Are these jobs everything they’re cracked up to be? What challenges lie beneath the obvious perks, and are those perceived “perks” always available?
As with any job, doing your homework beforehand is the name of the game if you want to get what you sign up for. In the cruise industry, for instance, the different types of ships offer a variety of performing opportunities. Smaller steamboats that glide gently along the Mississippi serve up homegrown musical revues in cocktail lounges that seat a few hundred people. Carnival’s cruise liners contract internationally to present fully produced shows in theaters that seat up to 1,500.
Most performers are attracted to cruising for the travel opportunities. “Where else can you get paid to do what you love and see the world at the same time?” says Sybil Haggard, who has performed with many cruise lines. “Cruise ships go to so many places in one cruise. As a performer, you end up at these ports repeatedly, and can really get to know them. For instance, I can give you directions to my favorite restaurants in Venice, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, and St. Petersburg.” For Haggard, the biggest factor in deciding which cruises to work is their itineraries. More than the casts or shows or the type of ship, she finds that if she’s excited about the travel destination, everything else falls into place.
Beware, though: The potential pitfalls of ship life are legion. From having to perform on rocky seas to the confinement of working and living in the same quarters with the same staff for weeks at a time, these challenges require patience, discipline, and resilience. “You can never leave work,” admits Michelle Fortner, a dancer for Celebrity Cruises. “At most jobs, if you have a bad day, you can just drive home and get away from it all. On a ship you live, work, play, date, and hang out with the same people for six months. It’s like an extremely small town that floats.” As such, “It’s imperative to be discreet and take time to make the right decisions” adds Sandor Miski, a Hungarian performer for Celebrity. In a small world, where every job is a potential stepping-stone to the next, a good reputation can be a valuable commodity.
Theme parks offer a similar performing experience but with more freedom. Each summer, parks like Hershey, Busch Gardens, and Disney hire armies of performers to enliven everything from musical revues to thematically driven comedy to magic shows. While these jobs are often not as lucrative as cruises, dancers sacrifice less of their independence while still gaining valuable performing experience. “I think theme parks can be a great training ground for young performers,” says Fortner, who also performed and choreographed for Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. “It takes a great deal of discipline to perform at the top of your game day in and day out. Even though you have done it 300 times, you have to think about the person out in the audience who has never seen the show.” Changeable weather conditions can be trying for those performing out of doors but can also inspire exceptional focus and drive. Building this discipline takes grit but can provide valuable experience for your future career.
If these options fail to tempt you, why not go to a party? Dancers who are hired to strut their stuff and draw guests out onto the dance floor are often called party pumpers or enhancers. Most often hired for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, birthdays, weddings, and corporate events, these performers work in tandem with DJs to rev up parties that can include hundreds of attendees.
Performer Heather Fox says her favorite part is the workout. “I had so much fun when I just got to jump around and dance like crazy!” Brynn Shiovitz loves the costumes. “I got to dress up in ridiculous sunglasses and hats and make others do the same.” Party pumpers mingle with the guests, so they share the spotlight. In this way, parties can provide a paid opportunity to “perform” without the usual performance anxiety. This does not mean, however, that working a party is stress-free. Dancing in conjunction with a DJ or emcee requires teamwork. “Some emcees are great to work with—very respectful and fun,” says Fox. “Some just yell and get angry when they try to communicate, and that makes for a miserable experience.”
How are performers in these fields faring in the current economic downturn? Is this a good time to break into this kind of work? Most veterans say the effects aren’t major … yet. Some cruise lines are scheduling more dark nights in order to encourage guests to spend money at the bars and discos on-board. This translates into fewer shows for performers, which may result in fewer contracts in time. Since large parties are often planned a year or more in advance, the party pumpers we spoke with hadn’t seen a huge drop in work. However, it’s likely that some party pumpers will get less gigs as customers scale back. Theme parks could also have challenges in convincing consumers to come out this summer. With less money all around, the first budget line families cut is often entertainment.
Despite the current grim forecast, there is little doubt that these industries will continue to draw customers as they develop ever more creative marketing strategies. A weekend cruise, a day at a park, or even an evening at a party can serve as a welcome relief from daily economic anxieties. Performers may find themselves called on to comfort and distract audiences while going through many of the same difficulties themselves. But for those committed souls who hunger for both adventure and the stage, these industries pack a full dosage of both.
The truth is, after the honeymoon has worn off, these jobs are like many others. While each may offer opportunities to dance, travel, and meet interesting people, their day-to-day realities are filled with pros and cons that can make or break an experience. Ultimately, it’s how you choose to respond to these challenges that will define your success. As Michelle Fortner advises, “The best thing you can do is be prepared and be easy to work with. You never know where a job will lead you.”
Sarah Carlson is an assistant professor of dance at Muhlenberg College in PA and the artistic director of Sarah Carlson-Dance Link.
Illustration by Hanna Varady.