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Dancing kings

Nimble men hire on as dance partners for retirement centers, cruise ships

Diane Lade Tribune News Service

If you’re male, older than 60, look good in a tux and love to cut a rug, the world is your oyster.

Such gents are in great demand as dance hosts. These suave fellows, a mash-up of Gilded Age elegance and Fred Astaire, are booked to even out the skewed ratio of senior guys to gals on dance floors at retirement communities, cruise ships and social gatherings.

In exchange, they may earn some extra spending money, a deeply discounted room on a luxury liner, or free entry to a top-flight ballroom or A-list gala.

The real payoff, though? More female attention than George Clooney could handle. With plenty of smiles as a tip.

“If the ladies are smiling, then I’m smiling,” said Linda Lanson, director of community life at the Abbey Delray retirement center in Delray Beach, Florida.

Lanson, like others who deal with senior event planning, has learned that dance hosts can make or break a party.

“I can’t have a dance without them,” said Lanson. “If we have a new one show up, the ladies will want to know all about him. It’s better for them than vitamins.”

One repeat attender at Abbey Delray: Paul Sciberras, 76, a retired oil company employee from Plantation.

Sciberras, who grew up in Malta, has excellent manners and happy feet. Perhaps he understands the delicate dynamics of dance hosting because he took it up to ease his loneliness after his wife died 12 years ago. He describes his host duties this way: “You see an older lady sitting by herself, in a pretty dress. You see her tapping her foot. But a lot of people don’t ask old ladies to dance. So I go over and say, ‘Would you like to have a dance?’ She says, ‘Of course!’ She stands up and she is all smiles. I like to make people happy.”

This scenario played out repeatedly during Abbey Delray’s Mardi Gras dance on a Thursday night in February. There was a three-piece band, two well-stocked bars and a buffet. A string of wheelchairs and walkers were lined up outside the community room door, like fancy sedans at a valet station.

Sciberras showed up early, along with his friend and fellow dance host Michael Campbell, of Sunrise, and Dave Howell, a tall Delray Beach retiree and host whom Lanson often contacts for referrals. The men quietly assess the crowd – about 150 people, mostly women in their 70s and 80s, dressed in their glittery Mardi Gras finest.

Quickly, they agreed on how to divide up the room. And they were off.

“Heeellloooo ladies!” Campbell, 77, called out loudly. “Nice to see you! Are you ready to dance?” He gave a short shake of his hips as the women giggled and clapped, then started moving among the brightly decorated tables.

The hosts all know the rules: Each host must dance with each lady, but only once so others get a chance. No favorites. No romance.

If the ladies resent the restrictions, they don’t mention it.

“I just appreciate them being here. Look at them, aren’t they sweet?” said Lilyan Berkowitz, an 85-year-old widow who was waiting on the edge of the dance floor.

Does she have a favorite host? “Oh no, I’ll take anyone,” she said.

The fact that these dapper gentlemen are getting $70 each to whisk them away in a waltz doesn’t dampen the fun.

“A lot of the ladies look forward to it,” said Claire Shaiman, 86. “To have your arms around a man again.”

Yet the majority weren’t interested in having those arms around full-time. They were eager for mambo, not marriage.

“I know they aren’t going to ask me out for coffee. I say that’s OK, as long as I can still cha-cha,” said Alzira Schaal, 82. Light-footed and Brazilian, her Cleopatra-style green, purple and gold tinsel wig shimmered as she tossed her head.

Old boys who want to get lucky, however, should forget about dance hosting, Sciberras and Campbell both say. “No romance” is the standard rule in just about every host situation dance they’ve encountered.

Like at Abbey Delray, cruise lines require their hosts to constantly mingle and make small talk, not pillow talk, Sciberras and Campbell say. Just entering a passenger’s cabin can get you tossed off a ship.

That doesn’t prevent the ladies from trying to lead hosts into temptation. “If she gives me the death grip, I know I’m in trouble,” Campbell said. “I have to say, ‘Please! We are not on the Titanic.’ ”

How does he defuse such situations? “Carefully,” Campbell said. “You don’t want to offend them or make them feel terrible. I usually do fast dances, so we can’t get too committed.”

Sciberras and Campbell both are part of the Gentlemen Host Program, which supplies experienced single, mature male ballroom dancers for luxury cruise lines. They like to share one of the cabins set aside for hosts, which costs them each $30 daily. Just about everything else is free.

It’s not all wine, off-limits women and big band songs, however. There’s no smoking and limited drinking. If you’re not in your cabin, you’re expected to be dancing or chatting or smiling, Sciberras said. And your toes get stepped on. A lot.

One company using Gentlemen Hosts is Cunard, the iconic 175-year-old cruise line whose famous ships have huge ballrooms and tend to attract older travelers. Cunard spokeswoman Jackie Chase says there are no plans to dump the hosts who have been fox-trotting their unescorted ladies for several decades.

The program “has a very genteel aspect about it, like something from a bygone era,” Chase said. “I have watched the Gentlemen Hosts in action, and I always am impressed.”

Many hosts are recruited through Compass Speakers and Entertainment, a Fort Lauderdale agency that keeps about 400 dancing kings ages 45 to 75 at the ready. The men are required to have tuxedos and a good personality, as well as undergo a background check and an in-person interview before being signed up.

Ballrooms on the high seas aren’t the only ones in need of gentlemen dance hosts.

Helen Lamb, manager of the Goldcoast Ballroom in Coconut Creek, keeps an eye out for seniors with smooth moves on her dance floor. They are invited to come to dances, admission charge waived, as volunteer hosts. Lamb also refers her regulars, who set their own schedules and fees, to retirement complexes or events that need hosts.

Older single women, most in their 80s and 90s, often come to Goldcoast afternoon dances “because their friends are here and they want to socialize,” Lamb said. They also want a dance partner, hence the volunteer hosts.

“Everyone enjoys having someone to dance with,” Lamb said.

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