You don’t have to be a dancer or a fan of the ABC show to fall in love with Holland America‘s new Dancing with the Stars: At Sea program — although, if you’re on any of the line’s themed cruises, you will most likely leave as one of them.
The program, which launched February 2013, works like this: On regular sailings, passengers can take ballroom dance classes and compete for a chance to represent their ship as a finalist. Fifteen finalists return to the stage on a free championship theme cruise, to dance off for the “Grand Champion” title and Mirror Ball trophy.
The first DWTS: At Sea Championship cruise took place last week. Besides the finalists, the ship featured professional dancers Derek Hough (the show’s back-to-back champion), Kym Johnson, Sharna Burgess, Tristan MacManus, Emma Slater and Jaymz Tuaileva; musical performers Joey Fatone and Sabrina Bryan; TV star and fashion expert Carson Kressley; and 15 passenger finalists.
I am not a dancer and have only watched two seasons of the show. I expected a typical Holland America cruise, with a relaxed mature crowd, reserved atmosphere and nightclub that clears out before midnight — with a few DWTS-themed activities on the side.
This cruise proved me wrong…. Here’s how.
The Overall Vibe.
While the crowd remained fairly mature, I did notice a few younger faces. But the energy level is what made the Dancing with the Stars: At Sea theme cruise different from a regular HAL sailing.
Northern Lights nightclub was almost always filled with people past midnight — a mix of passengers, HAL dancers and occasionally celebs — all either working the dance floor or enjoying the scene from the bar. One night, Derek was up singing along with fellow passengers in the Piano Bar until 5 a.m. The energy was refreshing… and contagious.
I also was surprised to meet quite a few folks who weren’t even aware they had booked a theme cruise. But it didn’t take long for them to get drawn in as word of mouth spread. Those who weren’t interested weren’t fazed, and daily and nightly activities continued, as they would have on a regular sailing.
The celebrities interacted freely with passengers during the cruise, whether that was through a simple “Hello” in the hallways or casual conversation on the Lido Deck. Perhaps that’s because Holland America passengers showed a certain level of respect and appreciation; there was the occasional “selfie” requested at inconvenient times, but interactions were mainly fun and casual, and never got out of control.
As a former ‘N Sync fan, I couldn’t wait to meet Joey — and when I did at the first press conference, I fell victim to the star-stuck butterflies and quivering smile. (Can you blame this ’90s girl?) But it only lasted a few minutes, and I soon began to feel as if I were conversing with an old friend. At this point, I had to confess my boy band crush, and I did so, nonchalantly. He handled it with aplomb.
On the championship theme cruise, the dance classes you’d typically find on regular sailings are replaced by judged dance performances, similar to those on the show. (Don’t worry; there was still an opportunity to take lessons led by Derek and Emma.) There also was one big production show, where the pros, celebs and HAL dancers — and a few lucky passengers — took the stage. The talent was overwhelming.
Each of the 15 finalists spent hours a day with his or her partner, a talented HAL dancer, practicing new routines for each judged performance. And it showed. Finalist Allyse Ishino’s last performance with ‘Tiago’ looked like something straight out of the TV show.
Jason Venner, former Holland America cruise director and now host and coordinator of Dancing with the Stars: At Sea, also deserves a standing O — as does his brief reenactment of a Titanic scene with Cruise Director Eric Dowis, who had the audience rolling in the aisles night after night.
By the last night’s performance, the final three had already accumulated a number of fans, who had been following their journeys throughout the week. Once Allyse was rewarded her Mirror Ball trophy amidst bursts of confetti, jaws dropped and passengers locked eyes with each other in awe, all of us validating that we had seen something special.
I felt inspired. I have always wanted to learn ballroom dance, and my days onboard made it seem more tangible than ever. I may never be as swift-footed or chill-provoking as the dancers I witnessed in action, but I plan to enroll in a dance class and at least try. One thing’s for sure: I’m a new loyal fan of the show.