Elementary Phrasal Verbs.
Wearing high heels and fanciful, feathered costumes, Australian Loretta Bunning traveled the Caribbean as a dancer on a cruise ship. Read on as she gives TeaTimeMag a behind-the-scenes look at life on the open ocean.
Text and photos by: Loretta Bunning
had just flown in from Sydney, Australia, a grueling, two-day flight through Fiji, Los Angeles, Dallas, and finally, Houston, a whirlwind trip with too many cities and too much jet lag. I could barely remember where I was going, but I had landed my dream job as a dancer in Las Vegas-style shows on a cruise ship.
The first time I saw the ship, I couldn’t believe its enormity. I waited in line at the Port of Galveston, Texas, to pass through immigration with 60 other people who were also signing onto the ship that day. There seemed to be a person from nearly every country. Later I learned that there were 920 crew members from 52 nations. These people were about to become my friends and family for the next eight months as we cruised through the Caribbean.
Working on a cruise ship as a dancer was more than just a job; it was a lifestyle and a fantastic way to meet people from all over the world and enjoy some of the world’s most exotic locations, all while being paid. Although life onboard could be glamorous, there were challenging aspects as well.
After passing through immigration, I was patted down and searched for any drugs or weapons. I then walked through a metal detector, and my bags were screened for items such as extension cords, electric kettles or candles. These objects were strictly prohibited because they could have been fire hazards. This security search became one of the routines of life onboard, repeated at every port.
Once onboard, the new group was herded here and there on the crew deck, filling out paper work, having identification photos taken, collecting name tags, cabin keys and being given an orientation seminar that included an endless list of rules. I didn’t know how I was going to remember how to get from one place to another on the ship. There were so many secret passageways and hidden stairwells that it reminded me of a bee hive, with crew members rushing to work down every passageway. I also had to get my head around the ship jargon: “forward” for the front of the ship, “aft” for the back, “starboard” for the right side, and “port” for the left side. After getting lost several times, I decided to carry a map in my pocket for the first couple of weeks, because this was really a huge, floating city.
My new cabin mate, Sandra, also a dancer, and I were relieved to find our cabin in the maze of corridors. Our cabin was a 3-by-4-meter box, with bunk beds, a desk with a TV, and a small wardrobe each. We were lucky enough to have a bathroom, even if it was only just over 1 meter square; most crew members shared one bathroom among several cabins. We had no window to give natural light, and each bed had a curtain for privacy while sleeping. Once we were standing in the cabin with our two suitcases, there was barely any room to move. We decided that one person would sit on the bed to give the other person room to unpack. Over the next few months, we learnt that living in such confined areas can take a lot of patience. We had to be organized in our daily routine because there was minimal space to maneuver. Our cabin was partially under the ship’s waterline, and during rough weather, we could hear the water booming against the metal side of the ship. During my first months onboard, I was always a little nervous that the water would break through.
During particularly rough weather, we would place our TV on the floor, lock the doors of our wardrobes and tie down anything else that might fall and break during the storm. We learnt this the hard way. On one particularly rocky night, Sandra and I returned to find our perfume bottles smashed on the floor after they slid off the shelf. My top bunk bed was fitted with a roll bar to keep me from falling out, and the showers were all fitted with rails in case we needed to hold on for balance. We also each had a life jacket in the cabin in case of an emergency. But nothing prepared me for seasickness. Some days the ship would rock incessantly. For the most part, we thought it was fun to walk around like we were drunk through the corridors or to be rocked to sleep like a baby. However, there were days when we felt like there was nothing that could make us feel better and we couldn’t wait to reach land or for the storm to pass. Dancing on stage during a storm was a battle for balance. It could be a little scary when dancing in a large, heavy feathery costume on a giant glass staircase or close to the 8-meter drop down into the band pit. Mostly it was just fun as we would travel from one side of the stage to the other with the help of the rocking ship.
The shows on board were spectacular, and I was really excited to be a part of something so creative. Little did I know that the first month onboard would be such a challenge; some days I was even too tired to head outside and take in fresh air and sunlight. Every muscle in my body ached as we rehearsed 10 or 12 hours a day in the ship’s theatre. We learnt the dance routines, the entrances and exits from the stage, and when a new set was coming in so we wouldn’t get squashed. We had costume fittings and learnt the costume changes. My shortest costume change was 20 seconds, and at first I was unable to make it in time. I would carefully lay out my costume in the exact order of how I would place it on my body so no time was lost. Eventually after much practice, I was able to change with time to check that my hair was still in place. One particular show was an hour long, and I had 12 costume changes. Part of our job was caring for the costumes, so we would hand-wash each costume once a month and hand-sew any holes or damage. One of the dancers was designated as the cast seamstress, and he or she would mend any large problems with the costumes, including repairing the feather backpacks we wore and large hats and wigs.
The cast consisted of 11 female and 5 male dancers, and one female and one male singer. To run the shows smoothly, we had help from the backstage manager, a lighting technician, a sound technician and about 10 more men backstage to help move sets, props and even help the dancers with their quick changes. There was no better feeling than dancing for 1,000 people every night in beautiful costumes, and we had to perform no matter whether we had seasickness or were fatigued. Backstage could sometimes be total mayhem with sets breaking down and costumes ripping. Every now and then, we would play tricks on each other to keep ourselves entertained while performing the same show for the 100th time. We would mix people’s costumes up or hide just one of their shoes. It was funny to see them run around frantically trying to finish the costume change before the music started; sometimes they would just have to go on stage with a piece of their costume missing or with just one shoe. The show must go on!
I enjoyed my time working as a dancer as much as I did the lifestyle, which is why I ended up doing six more contracts onboard, each ranging from 8 to 11 months, before returning to life on land. It was a fantastic period in my life, and by the end, I knew well many ports in the U.S., Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras, and the rest of the Caribbean. We worked hard and played hard, as what else is there to do when you are out at sea?