Dancing queen

Mama Lee, the ocean’s own dancing queen. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

I first blogged briefly about Mama Lee, who lives on the luxury liner, Crystal Serenity when I met her on board in the Mediterranean last year. I wrote about her and her love for dancing at greater length in this article for the Sunday Times.

WHY do people cruise? Because they want to unpack their bags only once. Or, more appealing still, they want their bags unpacked for them, once only, by their private butler. People cruise because they love the ocean and, particularly those who select one of the smaller or medium-sized, über-luxurious liners, they cruise to travel in comfort and style. They enjoy access to fine food in abundance at anytime of the day or night. They like to be indulged, waited upon and entertained. And they want it all within walking distance of their suite.

That’s all true. But it’s not why Lee Wachtstetter chooses to cruise. During the past 50 years, the 83-year-old widow has been on more than 280 cruises all over the world. Then, in 2008, she sold her apartment in Fort Lauderdale in Florida, US to settled permanently on the 13-deck, 535-cabin Crystal Serenity, which is where I met her during a cruise of the Mediterranean late last year.

While Wachtstetter, who prefers to be called Mama Lee, admits she enjoys having a crew “large and attentive enough to spoil a queen” at her disposal – the Crystal Serenity has one of the highest guest-to-staff ratios (1,65:1) of all luxury liners currently in service – she cruises because, as her personal calling card declares, she loves “dancing, cruising, enjoying life”.

Dancing takes precedence. Whether she’s foxtrotting, cha cha-ing, sambaing, rumbaing or waltzing, Mama Lee is at it for at least two hours every day. She trains with the liner’s professional dance instructors (who offer passengers complimentary daytime lessons several times a week) and then, both before and after dinner each night, shows off her steps to the music of the Crystal Sextet in the Palm Court on Deck 12.

Mama Lee hasn’t always been a dancer. Until about 15 years ago, she cruised with her banker husband, who loved everything about life on board a luxury liner – except for the dancing.

“Before he passed away, he made me promise I wouldn’t give up cruising, which we’d been doing together since 1962,” she says. “I didn’t. In fact, I began going on more and more cruises. I also began dancing. A lot. Making up perhaps, for almost 50 years of marriage during which I didn’t dance.”

With the dance bug firmly in place, Mama Lee began selecting ships and routes not because of where they’d take her, but rather because of where they’d let her feet take her. Her first priority was that the cruise line had a dance partner program, which is why she chose the Crystal Serenity initially and why, four years ago, she sold her home to take up a permanent life onboard.

Photograph: Crystal Cruises.

Crystal Cruises, which operates the Crystal Serenity and her sister ship, the Crystal Symphony, introduced its Ambassador Host plan in 1990. The program, says the company’s vice president of public relations, Mimi Weisband, involves “carefully screened gentlemen with interests and backgrounds similar to those of our guests”, who are invited on cruises to ensure that single women, like Mama Lee, have dance partners. Other criterions are that hosts are single, 45-years-old or older and skilled ballroom dancers.

The men are not paid to dance but the company pays for their flights to and from the ship, and they cruise for free. They stay in passenger staterooms, rather than in crew quarters. In addition to dancing each night, the men host dance classes, dine with single women, escort groups on shore excursions and play cards with guests.

Most are retired or semi-retired businessmen of private means who love to cruise – and dance. The four hosts in attendance during my time on the Crystal Serenity were a retired financial planner for the provincial government of British Columbia in Canada; a computer engineer from California who has worked for several big name computer companies in Silicon Valley, including IBM; an ex-professional dancer turned schoolteacher turned property broker from Los Angeles, and retired tax lawyer with business interests in Chile and Peru from San Diego.

Despite the fabled romance-charged atmosphere of a cruise liner, there is nothing “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” about the job. The protocol, insist Mama Lee, the hosts and Weisband, is pretty strict. There’s a clear code of conduct, which, if they don’t want to be put ashore at the next port and hope to be invited on future cruises, hosts are obliged to observe. It’s taboo, for example, to dance more than once with a woman before hosts have asked all other single women in the room if they’d like to dance. The job, they maintain, is not about romance or sex: it’s about socialising and being on hand to ensure single women can indulge their love for dancing.

“The etiquette is unambiguous and, on a ship like this, it’s maintained,” says Mama Lee. “That’s why women like me who love to dance, cruise. It’s fun, it’s safe and I get the platonic companionship and friendship of a charming group of men who love to dance and do it well.”

In 2008, as they pondered her cruise schedule for the next year, Mama Lee’s daughter suggested she sell her apartment in Florida and settle permanently on the Crystal Serenity.

“It made sense,” recalls the octogenarian. “I was spending very little time in my apartment and the idea of cruising full time, pleased me. So, here I am.”

Photograph: Crystal Cruises

In fact, Mama Lee seldom goes ashore. Because she’s travelled so extensively, she’s seen as much as she’d like. She makes an exception though, when the Serenity ties up in Turkey.

“I can’t resist the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The outfits are gorgeously glitzy, perfect for ballroom dancing. Of course, I have limited space in my cabin so I have to restrain myself when it comes to shopping these days – can’t go over board, you might say.”

She visits her children and grandchildren in the US for a few weeks over Christmas each year, which is, she says, a good time to be off the ship: “There are generally more children on board over that time and I’m pleased to be able to avoid them on the dance floor.”

When she’s not dancing, Mama Lee finds a quiet place on the ship, usually in the shade alongside the Neptune Pool on the Lido Deck, to do her needlework. She’s a dab hand at cross stitch, needlepoint and embroidery, and creates handbags, tablecloths, toys and wall art, which she generally gives to crew members.

“They’re like family to me,” she says. “Many have worked on the ship for years and I’ve got to know them well. I know where they come from and who they go home to when their contracts come to an end. They treat me so well. I give them little gifts to take home to remember Mama Lee by until they return for another contract.”

She occasionally dines with the captain and first officers but, for the most part, joins tables of eight in the Crystal Dining Room for dinner each night.

“Of course, I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve made among the other passengers on the ship and I’ll probably have forgotten your name the day you disembark,” she smiles. “But I never forget a dance partner. The day I do, or if something happens and I can no longer dance, I’ll stop cruising.”

(First published in the Sunday Times Travel Weekly of 17 June 2012.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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