Dancing on cruise ships

Dancing on a cruise ship – Everything you need to know!

She’s Irish, she’s sarcastic, been to every single continent in the world, worked 6 cruise ship contracts, toured China, taught at Millennium in Shanghai & Beijing, danced for Taylor Swift, lived in France, currently signed to MSA in Los Angeles, managed BASE-studios in London and the list goes on and on… my point is: she knows what she’s talking about, alright.

She’s a dear friend of mine, who will tell you things straight to your face over a Texas Sized Mango Margarita, so get ready for a chat about all the inside information you need on what it’s really like to dance on a cruise ship.

Introducing: Sarah McGinley. Instagram (@sarah.mc.ginley)

Take it away, Sarah!

When I was at full time training in our final graduating year of college at Performers College UK in London, they allowed us to audition for jobs. There were 3 jobs that everybody wanted:

1. To dance on X Factor

2. To dance on West End Show

3. To book a world cruise ship. 

How did you book a cruise ship job?

There was only one way to book that job: Through a cattle call…sorry “live audition”. You would patiently wait in a line outside Pineapple Dance Studios in London. The line was longer than The Great Wall of China.

We all looked and dressed the same and knew what to expect. 5-600 girls all dressed in high waisted pants, fishnets, a colorful crop top and a red lip.

(Always a red lip).

The audition choreography – which styles are required?

You would learn an audition choreography that would consist of every dance style possible to mankind. 4×8 counts of ballet, jazz, hip hop, tap and ballroom.

Later I understood why, because the shows really are all so different on the ship. Therefore they need dancers that can execute all styles.

Cruise Ship How To Get The Job

An 8 hour audition process

Each time you made it through a round of cuts, another style would be given, and most of the time some simple partner work.

I have been to some auditions that lasted 8 hours so I guess what im tryna say is pack some snacks.

However, I have been to some auditions where they are mainly looking for showgirls/cabaret jazz girls. At these auditions they will simply ask you to do jazz walks from the corner and a double pirouette on each leg, then they make a massive cut leaving only a few dancers.

We like those quick auditions….more of those please. 

Your nationality doesn’t matter – paper work and visas

Working on a cruise ship, it doesn’t matter what country you are from because you will now be working at sea – which is “maritime laws”.

Your visa is simply a “seafarer visa” called C12, but the ship look after everything for you. They make the visas for you and provide all information you need.

You just need a full medical test done to prove you are mentally and physically well.

(Maybe you’ll also like: “How to get an american artist work visa” here)

The rehearsal process

I took a job with Princess cruises, and our rehearsals were 4 weeks long in Santa Clarita, California. This was honestly the most fun process, and the apartments and studios provided were incredible.

In those 4 weeks we learned five one-hour long shows, all different styles and genres. They also had a costume warehouse, where they’d fit us for wigs, hairpieces, tights, and shoes. In my opinion the most fun days were the days trying on wigs. 

“The Install” – The first days on board

After you finish 4 weeks at the Princess mothership in California, you board your ship for what is called “The Install”. This is where the cast from the last ship are still onboard and you spend 2-3 days doing a handover. You watch the shows performed by the cast already onboard and you meet who’s track you will be filling.

I met the dancer whose role I will be replacing and she talked me through where my place was in the dressing room, where I would need to pre-set my costumes and props for the quickest changes, and lastly introduce you to your dresser (the person that dresses you side stage).

For many numbers you have 30 seconds to change shoes, wig, costume and get to the other side of the stage (a gal needs help) – enter the amazing dressers.

You have to look like the dancer you’re replacing

Costume designers will also be with you during the first days on the ship to alter any costumes that are needed, but generally you are very similar to the dancer you are replacing.

Please bear this fact in mind when auditioning. 99% of the time they need someone to fill a track i.e. fit the costume, so you could be the most fabulous wonderful dancer but maybe too tall, so it’s really not personal.

Most trained dancers are capable of performing these shows and doing this job. 

Rehearsing on a moving boat?

When the handover is over the theatre goes dark and we begin to practise the shows on stage with the set we didn’t have in rehearsals ( in one show there was a moving cadillac on stage so it’s needed). There are also a lot of trap doors and floor parts that move down, up and out in shows and it takes a lot of getting used – whilst also on a moving boat.

On big liners you cannot feel the boats motions…on smaller liners you definitely can. 

Are you doing the same show every single night on a cruise?

The rule thumb is a show cannot repeat on a cruise, so for example if a cruise is 10 days they will see all five shows every second evening of their cruise. During ten days you will work 5 nights and all of those nights are nights at sea so you never “miss out” on seeing a new part of the world.

On a show night you perform the same show 3 times in order for all passengers to have an opportunity to see the show. That is a really nice feeling! The theatre capacity is 2,000 people.

Every month we would record our shows and send them back to the head office and they would tell us if it needed to be cleaned or rehearsed, but I always had great casts who kept it clean so we were only really in rehearsals if somebody was injured or sick.

Did you ever change the shows? Did you ever get bored of the repetition?

After 3 months a choreographer would join us onboard and teach us 5 new shows for our next ship. The contracts were 4-5 months. I would take a 6 week holiday after a contract ended and go to a new ship afterwards, so I never got bored of the shows. 

Let’s talk about socializing – do you want to kill everyone after a week?

On my ship dancers shared a cabin with another dancer, you live in a bunk bed, and singers had their own room. However 9 out of 10 dancers would fall temporarily in love with an officer and move to a new cabin with a balcony and a hot tub, so rarely were there 2 dancers sharing.

I loved my roommates so much though, you build a bond like a sister and get to know people in a truly different way. In such small confinements there is nothing to hide. Your whole self is on show and you cannot choose what mask you would like to wear that day.

Did you have a romance… or a “showmance” yourself?

I “fell in love” many times onboard but I wholeheartedly preferred when I was in my bunk bed with my roomie chatting until 3am.

The perks of living on a cruise ship

  • Food and drink on the ship are 24 hours,
  • On the top deck there is “movie under the stars”
  • Pizza bar & candy stall
  • Buffet and a bar
  • A swimming pool as to your access
  • As you’re mincing around, passengers are telling you how much they loved the show.

The downsides – spill the tea, please

Bad sides of living on board:

  • No privacy
  • Paying $20 dollars for 60 minutes of WiFi can grind on you
  • There is a lot of ship politics and drama that no matter how much you say your going to stay out of it you are in some way sucked in. 

Do you actually get to see the world outside the cruise ship?

You really do get to see the world. Most places you revisit 7-8 times and there are some places I could walk you around blindfolded now.

Sometimes the ship would dock and stay there for 2-3 nights, so that would be really exciting when you got to stay overnight in a city.

However the con of travelling on a ship is that you don’t get to mix as much with the people of that country which is something I feel is important to truly soak in a culture. 

How much time do you spend on/off the cruise ship?

There are 2 typical days on board:

  • A sea day
  • A port day

A typical Sea day / performing day:

  • Wake up drink coffee on the top deck for ages it was my favourite thing to do
  • Watch the sea, it makes you feel so small.
  • Go to the gym for an hour
  • Eat a really big lunch to set me up for that evening
  • Go to the dressing room about 4pm do my make up and pre set my costumes
  • Warm up on stage, and go through the show I was performing that night mentally. There was a lot of partner work so i liked to run through my lifts with my partner once before the show.
  • Then the marathon would begin you would repeat the show 3 times
  • At 10pm my cast and I would all go for dinner together and most likely wine because it was tax free and only 6 dollars for a bottle of champagne.

A port day / adventure day:

  • Wake up at 7am
  • Get off the boat and just spend the day exploring.

I always went on excursions and tours planned by the ship so that I could see everything, luckily the dancers could do this for free.
The passengers paid $2-300 per excursion so we were super lucky. 

Be careful with who you work for – Know your worth

I don’t want to glorify my experience because like everything, there are good and bad companies.

Some hungry, graduated dancers just want their first job, and just want experience. I understand that but know your worth.

I have close friends that have told me close to horror stories of their ship experiences with mainly Italian cruise liners (Costa, MSC) where they worked dancing in the show and also had to work in other areas of the ship like the library? teaching in the gym…ect. they were called “cruise duties”….almost like chores I guess?

They weren’t allowed to eat anywhere else except the crew mess (rice and fish heads no thanks) and their pay check was not cute. 

Let’s talk about the money – You can make $3-5000 per month

Now let’s get to the good part and the reason most dancers like working on cruise ships: the money.

As an artist it’s hard to find financial security in a dance job but a ship is a great way of doing that. Many of my friends have bought houses with their ship money or invested in property/businesses to secure a future.

It is a great way to save money. With a good company you should expect to make $3-5000 per month. Normally you will start on $3500 per month and your wage will increase every time you take a new contract to incentivise you to stay with the same company.

It’s normally capped at $5000 per month however you receive a bonus of about $4000 every time you complete 3 contracts.

(Read the blog post “How much a professional dancer make”here)

You can also have the opportunity to work in different parts of the company as a skeleton cast for a new show, a swing, an install overseer of shows, a teacher of shows, and/or quality control of shows. Many dancers on ships I know have spent 5-10 years with the same company – loyalty is rewarded and encouraged with this gig!

Any expenses?

All your food on board is provided so my only expenses were wifi and phone cards(that ain’t cheap) so forget instagram scrolling, because the reception is terrible, you will simply have to actually TALK to people… imagine that. 

(Read “24 Easy Ways To Save Money As A Dancer here)

Companies you’ll reccommend for dancers?

  • Princess/Carnival Cruises 
    Now the same company have a variety of shows in MT/Commercial and Contemporary styles.
  • Disney Cruises, NCL
     Especially if you are interested in learning cirque work.
  • Crystal cruises 
    Very high pay! more geared towards showgirls so for all my tallies.
  • Royal Caribbean 
    Most of these ships also offer some ships that have Broadway musicals on them, all the same choreographers/directors and producers, so there are some wonderful opportunities.
  • Grayboy Cruises 
    An australian based company. Go to their website and contact their entertainment departments directly.

    In general:
    Try not to take these jobs through an agent. It is not necessary. All ships cast their own entertainment; they do not hire an outside party, and youll get more coin. you’re welcome. 

(Read about Dance Agencies in LA & How To Get Signed here)

Dance on a cruise ship

Finish this sentence: Dancing on a cruise ship is for you if….

… you want to use the world like a travel brochure, save money, have a dance, fall in love with someone instantly for 6 weeks that youll never talk to again. If that’s you, get yourself on a ship! 

Finish this sentence: Dancing on a cruise ship is not for you if…

… you value WiFi and privacy and cannot follow rules…..If that’s you, you will struggle but you will learn a lot about yourself. I was one of those people and I don’t regret a thing. I learned more about myself in that time then I did about anything else.

SYNOPSIS: get your red lipstick on and practise your high kicks!

Follow Sarah McGinley on Instagram to see what adventure she’s up to next or for any questions you may have! IG: (@sarah.mc.ginley )

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