P&O is launching Strictly Come Dancing cruises, complete with the show’s famously fastidious judge Craig Revel Horwood. Ballroom virgin James Bedding signed up for the inaugural trip – and inevitable humiliation
Somewhere over that watery horizon lies the Sahara, I thought, as I lurched past one of the windows of my floating ballroom: what a strange place to be learning the cha-cha-cha. And then I trod on someone’s foot, and decided I really should concentrate.
Not least because I was on the inaugural Strictly Come Dancing cruise, and my dance partner and I seemed to be on a collision course with Craig Revel Horwood – of all the judges from the Saturday-night TV show, probably the most dreaded for his withering put-downs.
Surely here, I thought, far from the landlocked calm of a BBC studio, in the middle of the Atlantic, he would be more forgiving? If I looked less like a ballroom dancer than a drunken dodgem driver, I figured I could always blame the ocean swell. Unfortunately for me, the sea today was as flat as a dance floor.
This was just the first in a series of themed Strictly cruises to be run by P&O in conjunction with the BBC. In July, enthusiasts will dance their way up the Norwegian coast on Oriana; a further seven voyages are planned for 2013. The inaugural cruise – on Oriana, to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries – took place earlier this month [June], and Telegraph Travel was invited to take an exclusive peek.
Perhaps it is only inevitable that Strictly is broadening its horizons. The show has run to nine series in the UK, the most recent final attracting 13 million viewers. The format has been licensed to 40 countries; every week of 2011, a locally produced version of the show was on air somewhere in the world. After conquering six continents, Strictly is set to take on the high seas.
And cruising would seem the ideal format. As with most cruise holidays, the schedule for the inaugural Strictly voyage on Oriana offered dance classes and ballroom evenings for passengers, as well as tributes to the musicals and other shows by the resident theatre company. But the cruise also featured special extras, from performances by professional dancers on Strictly to an interview with Craig Revel Horwood – and a contest for passengers chaired by the famously fastidious judge.
The mere thought struck horror in my knees. I have a troubled relationship with dance. After an ugly struggle with salsa and two drawn-out but ultimately doomed attempts at tango, I settled on jazz dance – happily, you don’t have a partner to exasperate. I went several times a week for seven years, until I moved home. I suppose the fact that after 1,000 hours of classes I still enjoyed the challenge of the “Absolute beginner” level confirmed that my talents lie elsewhere, but I adored the exercise, the discipline, and the luxury of losing myself for an hour in intoxicating music without ever having to justify myself to anyone. Which is why the idea of performing to Craig gave me a feeling akin to seasickness.
I joined the cruise in Madeira. Glamorous costumes from the show glittered around the decks of the Oriana, and at the main ballroom, Harlequins, couples were practising their moves for the evening’s dancing.
I was relieved to learn that the ballroom is located conveniently close to the medical centre – and impressed by the stamina of one passenger who had used both. “I was jiving in my ballgown,” said 67-year-old Pauline Johnston, from Banbury, “when I caught a heel in the fabric, went flying, and broke my arm in two places.” That was at 11.30pm – yet she carried on dancing until 2am, before having it X-rayed and plastered. “I should be wearing a sling,” she said, “but you can’t dance in a sling, can you? I’ll put it back on now, though, in case I’m caught.”
Pauline’s friend Alicia Mumford – whom she met through dance classes back home – was less impressed. “It’s amazing the lengths someone will go to to get Craig’s attention,” she said. “But it worked.” Now Pauline proudly sports a Craig autograph on her plaster cast.
Not all passengers I spoke to confessed to a passion for Strictly. Many had booked more than a year ago, before P&O had announced the theme of Oriana’s cruise. But the popularity of the trip’s Strictly events suggested there were plenty of closet fans on board, too. The 674-seat Theatre Royal was overflowing for a lyrical and emotional performance by two professional dancers from the show, Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe; their grace clearly rubbed off on the rather less youthful audience, which leapt to its feet with astonishing agility to applaud.
The theatre was packed again – 15 minutes before opening – for the interview with Craig Revel Horwood, who charmed passengers with tales of 30 years working in the theatre as a dancer, choreographer and director. They queued in large numbers, too, to be photographed grinning with the Strictly judge whose strictness has made him the pantomime villain they love to boo: his damning assessments have ranged from a withering “cha cha cha chavvy” for Patsy Kensit to “overwhelmingly awful” for Ann Widdecombe.
What crazed cruise passengers, you might wonder, would subject themselves to such merciless critique on their holiday? A pair of honeymooners, for starters: Daniel and Jenifer Simpson boarded Oriana the day after their wedding, with just three hours’ sleep, and were soon selected with two other couples to compete in the Strictly Come Dancing Showcase. At the rehearsal, Jenifer confessed it was “nerve-racking – we’ve only been dancing ballroom six months.”
They certainly had a tough act to follow: a dazzling and sensual display of Latin dancing by a second pair of professionals from the show, Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev. Next, the pros joined Craig at a desk to watch as each of the competing couples took it in turns to glide across the melodies of a long, lyrical waltz.
The audience applauded rapturously, but Craig sweetened his words for no one, not even the happy couple: “A complete and absolute honeymoon disaaaster: lumpy, wooden and nervous.” The gentleman in the next couple fared even worse: “a personality bypass – completely charmless, darling.” After some gentler words from Katya and Pasha, the honeymooners seemed heroically positive. “We expected Craig to be honest, and he was. It’s encouragement – we’re going back to the dancing lessons, we’re definitely not giving up. We’d come again even if only to watch the professionals dancing – it’s by far the best holiday we’ve had.”
For my own trial – in the form of a dance class, with Craig as guest expert – I wanted to be well prepared. Nutrition was clearly not going to be a problem, with six restaurants to choose from, including two waiter-served restaurants and two fine-dining restaurants (for an extra charge). And a healthy appetite? I was struck by how mine grew every day.
As for exercise, I must have spent hours ambling indecisively from one counter to the next in the two all-day buffet restaurants – not to mention wandering the corridors of the ship, because even after three days on board I could not remember where anything was. I even managed a short stroll around the elegant 18th-century streets in the heart of Lisbon, before feeling unexpectedly peckish and stopping for a bite.
Back on board, I was impressed by the spacious top-deck gym, and its fleet of treadmills and exercise machines. These faced a panoramic window looking out over the bow and across the open sea – unusually for a gym, you feel your exertions are actually getting you somewhere. I fancied riding one of the cycle machines and pretending I was single-handedly powering the world’s biggest pedalo. I also wanted to try one of the early-morning classes – yoga, “fab abs” or “stretch and relax” – but I found that by the time I had hiked to the front of the ship, scaled a couple of flights of stairs and glimpsed the ships’ resident dancers working out, I was hungry enough to go straight to breakfast.
When I arrived at my packed dance class – beginner’s cha-cha-cha – I knew I had little chance of out-classing Patsy Kensit. The resident dance instructors on this year’s Strictly cruises, Julie and Simon Curtin, demonstrated the steps, and as I moved from one partner to the next, praying that for once I wouldn’t kick any shins or crush any toes, I tried desperately to relax and enjoy myself – pretty much impossible, when Craig stopped to watch.
His feedback was no surprise. “You were nervous, stiff, agitated, wooden – as if you had a rod placed firmly up your arse and you weren’t going to release it.” He gave me 4 out of 10 – and some encouraging tips, too: “Work on your technique, especially your footwork, and you will get that lovely licentious lascivious hip action we’re looking for.” As for our overall standard as beginners: “very, very poor – but how brilliant and brave of everyone to try, it’s fantastic to see you all dancing!”
Maybe that’s the important thing – just to keep dancing, regardless of talent or technique. Simon and Julie told me about the partially sighted 94-year old gentleman they taught Argentine tango on an earlier cruise; about passengers with learning disabilities, and others in callipers, who they had all led onto the dance floor. The Curtins only took up dancing in their early 40s, inspired by Series 2 of Strictly; they applied to join P&O 18 months ago, intending to do two or three cruises a year – and have already clocked up 21.
I began to fantasise that I, too, although still painfully clumsy at 50, might nonetheless one day blossom as a dancer, and twirl my way around the globe. Craig was supportive: “I think if you were 90 you could have a dream to run away and be a dancer,” he said. He was also uncharacteristically diplomatic: “I would be concerned for your mental welfare if you said you wanted to be a professional dancer,” he said, “but you could become a pro as a teacher.”
I was not the only passenger to be inspired. After one of the shows, I bumped into the very first couple I spoke to on Oriana: Philip and Karen Norman – retired police officer and civil servant, respectively – from Pontypool in South Wales. They had booked the cruise – their seventh – before the Strictly theme was announced; neither had even watched the show before last year. “We danced 30 years ago, but gave up,” said Karen. “This has definitely sparked something. We’re signing up for classes as soon as we get home.”
If the idea of Strictly Come Dancing cruises catches on, as I suspect it will, the world’s floating ballrooms will soon regain the popularity they enjoyed during the glamorous age of the ocean-going liners. And I know I’m not the only one dreaming of dancing into the sunset for decades to come.
- James Bedding stayed at Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal, Madeira, before boarding the cruise. “Charming” category rooms cost from about £255 per room per night, including buffet breakfast and all taxes. “Deluxe” rooms cost from about £458. Book through Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; www.reidspalace.com).
- P&O Cruises (0843 3740 111; www.pocruises.co.uk) is running seven Strictly Come Dancing cruises in 2013, between May and October. A 13-night cruise on Azura (A311N) from 11 to 24 May, 2013, sails from Southampton to Madeira, the Canaries, Cadiz, Lisbon and back to Southampton. “Getaway” fares cost from £1,361 per person based on two adults sharing including all main meals, entertainment and most facilities. (The cruise to Norway, departing 14 July 2012, has sold out.)