Dancing (and Cruising) With the Stars

PHOTO: Elena Grinenko of "Dancing With the Stars."ABC
Elena Grinenko of "Dancing With the Stars."

Matt Jensen might have the best job on Earth. He cruises around the world for free to dance with beautiful women.

The 57-year-old dance instructor from Casa Grande, Ariz., works as a cruise ship dance host.

"It's a dream job," Jensen said. "I get to dance with people who love to dance."

On this cruise, Jensen got to dance with someone who really, really loves to dance, world champion ballroom dancer Elena Grinenko, from the popular TV program "Dancing with the Stars."

She was the star attraction in a group dance cruise put together on board the luxury cruise ship, Holland America's MS Eurodam.

The 38 people in the group got a chance to dish and dance with one of the best.

In between talking about the latest gossip on "Dancing with the Stars," it was an opportunity to learn new dance techniques.

"I don't teach them steps because each one comes from different schools that have different teaching patterns," Grinenko said. "So it's genuinely more about how to make those steps better. Technique, balance, styling, lead and follow."

Grinenko observed that the one area most students need help in is leading and following.

"As a lady I wouldn't know what my next step is so I have to know the basics in order to follow," she said. "Competitive dancing you learn this one specific routine. And it does not change. So there is not as much lead and follow in 'Dancing with The Stars.'"

Grinenko noticed that the TV program has brought more men onto the dance floor.

"Because there are a lot of sports guys on 'Dancing with the Stars,' men are more likely to go with their women to the studios right now," she said. "It blew up the business, especially the first two or three years."

One of Grinenko's partners on DWTS was former basketball star Clyde Drexler.

Even though Grinenko was on the cruise to teach dance technique, her most popular sessions involved talking about behind the scenes gossip from the TV program.

Some of the professional dancers on the program have become more popular than the stars.

This dance cruise, put together by Let's Dance Vacations of Nashville, and its owner Elly Engberg, was the first of its kind, adding a well-known ballroom dance champion to its mix of regular dancers and hosts.

While Grinenko has traveled all over the world in dance competitions, this was her first cruise and her first visit to the Caribbean.

She began dancing in Russia at age seven. Now 35, she has retired from competitions and spends her time as a dance judge, and she has a business that represents other ballroom dancers.

"I cannot imagine my life without dancing. I started teaching at 15-years-old. I never had any other job," she said. "People dance because they want to. They're passionate about it. As a girl it was about sparkles and costumes."

Her best advice to the students, "Dance your heart out. Don't become too analytical. Don't forget to enjoy your craft."

Matt Jensen, a one-time crane operator, has been cruising and teaching dance for 20 years.

He's done more than 50 of these dance cruises.

"It's not a job where I make money but I get the trip paid for," he said. "I've managed to cruise the world for free. I've never even paid my airfare, only gratuities."

On cruises all passengers pay tips, or gratuities, to their waiters and room stewards, about $10-$12 a day. It's the primary income source for cruise employees.

Dancing Safely on the High Seas

While some cruise lines employ their own dance hosts, available to all the ladies, on this cruise Jensen was working for Let's Dance Vacations.

They put together cruises for women who like to dance, and they take their own men along to make sure the women have partners.

"We guarantee that they'll get to dance and it's a safe environment. And I'm adamant about that," said owner Elly Engberg, who keeps a watchful eye on her clients.

Safety is important because older women who like to dance, especially those who are financially secure, can be easy victims for unscrupulous dance partners.

Some women who go for dance lessons near home can be enticed into an expensive package of instruction costing thousands of dollars.

And some dance instructors have been known develop emotional relationships with women who are lonely in order to keep them paying for lessons.

These dance cruises offer an environment where the women know this is much less likely to happen. They pay the cruise fare and enjoy the dancing. And if any problems should develop, Engberg is there to deal with them.

Engberg makes sure her female guests have the opportunity to dance at least one out of every three dances and she's on hand for every event to make sure each woman is treated fairly.

About 95 percent of her clients are women.

"I charge them more than the price of the cruise because then I bring on dance hosts. I have minimum one dance host for every three ladies," she boasted. "I always have one spare in case someone gets sick."

Engberg puts together six to eight of these dances cruises a year. Usually, 20-35 people take part.

Most of the women are 60 to 80 years old, some younger and some older.

"I have one girl, Betty, who is 90 years old. She's been traveling with me from the beginning. She does two or three a year," Engberg said.

This was her first group cruise with a star headliner such as Grinenko.

Engberg said she'd like to do it again, perhaps even have a famous ballroom couple perform, but cost is a factor. She would need a lot more people in the group to make it viable.

Jerry Lamb of Scottsboro, Ala., has been on eight or nine dance cruises with Engberg's group. "I like traveling and I like to dance," she said. "I always have somebody to dance with." And she noted it was a compatible group of people. Lamb agreed with Engberg that the cruise provided a safe environment for women like her.

When handsome men dance the evening away with attractive women as they cruise exotic world ports, you might think there would be temptation for romance. But that's a definite no-no for the men.

"They are not allowed to fraternize with the women at all," Engberg declared. "I talk in very plain language to those guys before I hire them. No romance, nope. If there's anything like that, they're gone," she said wiping one hand across the other.

Jensen agreed. Romance between dance hosts and clients is not a good idea. "It has been known to happen but the host has an obligation to not step into an intimacy on that cruise," he said. "When you're off the ship you can contact someone. When you're working it's ill advised."

As an experienced dance host he realizes the men have to be careful. "Cruise lines have been known to have you and your bags sitting at the end of the pier," Jensen said.

His advice to avoid problems, keep dancing until you're so tired you need rest. "Dance till your dogs are barking, then go back to the cabin and fall asleep," he said.

Life as a Dance Host

Being a dance host can involve long hours. It's not just dancing in the evenings. Dance host attend classes with the women during the day, host tables for dinner, and sometimes go along on shore excursions.

And the hosts have to be careful about allocating their time between women.

"If you start socializing with one, you can't give more attention to one person than another. Some of these ladies are very good at counting dances," Jensen observed.

"It's not that the men are predators," Engberg said. "It's just, lonely lady, I don't like that combination." Engberg prides herself on the way she screens her dance hosts to make sure these problems don't occur.

"I am on every single cruise. I'm at every single dance and event that happens. I am hands on a hundred per cent of the time," she said. Engberg has a strict rule about no favoritism. And she also prohibits her men from discussing anything related to money and finances with any of the women.

So what does it take to make a good dance host?

It usually begins with a personal interview with Engberg. "They need to know how to dance and have personality. I don't like guys who are egomaniacs," she said. "They have to treat the ladies right. They have to like ladies. They can't be sexist. And they have to be able to take direction from me." That direction might involve letting the men know if they need to behave differently or dress differently.

The attraction of these dance cruises for the women is the opportunity to combine an interest in travel with a passion for dancing. "Some of them are doing two, three, four of these dance cruises a year," Engberg noted. "They dance way more here than they do if they ever go to the studio, where they have one guy for 10-20 women."

Older women who want to dance can go to places closer to home, but they might not get asked to dance that often. Usually, there just are not enough suitable male partners. On this type of dance cruise you're assured of dancing a third of the time.

"For a lot of these ladies it's what life is all about. I mean they just live from one cruise to the other," Engberg said. Her next dance cruise is in Alaska, May 12 aboard Holland America's MS Westerdam.

For dance host Matt Jensen, "It's living day to day, living in the moment." He believes anyone can dance, and it makes people feel better. "They can't think about their problems when they're dancing."

Editor's note: ABC News producer Tom Giusto, coincidentally, happened to be on vacation on the same cruise as the dance group. He received no special consideration from the cruise line or the group.