Strictly come cruising

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 18 February 2019

Darrel Bristow-Bovey finds inspiration on a cruise ship, and discovers that you’re wasting your life if you haven’t learnt to dance.

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Many people don’t like the idea of cruise ships, and I can understand why. There are a lot of bad cruise ships out there, with loudspeakers and children and greasy cruise directors urging passengers to have a cocktail and play some volleyball in the pool: the kind of cruise ships David Foster Wallace wrote about in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; the kind that make you stand at the bow in the Indian Ocean, scanning the horizon, wishing you would strike an iceberg and sink.

Of course those aren’t the only kind of cruise ships, but that’s still not the point. A certain kind of traveller – as a Getaway reader, you’re probably one, and good on you – doesn’t like the idea because cruise ships aren’t real travel. You need to spend time on the ground, you’re likely to say. You need to spend time with real people. And I can’t argue with that, except to say that sometimes we need different kinds of travel, and there are many kinds of people you can meet while travelling, and some of them are on cruise ships.

I often think about Elizabeth. I was in the Starlight Lounge after dinner one evening, with Cuba somewhere to starboard, listening to the jazz band and wondering about my mom. I had brought her on the cruise to bond with her, to try make up for years of not being around, and not being present when I was. I imagined us strolling in foreign ports and spending evenings on deck, talking about our lives, finally getting to know each other. But things don’t often work out as we imagine, and no matter where you go and where you are, you’re still you and your mom is still your mom, and the relationship you’ve built tends to stay what it is.

I was feeling despondent when I noticed a very old woman walk in. She was bent over and being helped by a gentleman companion. He indicated a seat but she shook her head. She wanted to dance.

As they stepped onto the floor, a transformation came over her. Her back magically straightened. Her shoulders squared. Her chin lifted. A moment before,  she was earthbound and bent by the years, but as she danced her feet skipped and floated, her dress swished like a debutante’s. I watched with the kind of astonished joy you feel watching a seabird skim and bank and turn just above the water.

Elizabeth was 95 years old. All her life she loved to dance and dreamed of seeing the world: Monaco, Hong Kong, the green palmy islands of the South Pacific. She hoped to dance with a prince. She wanted to be Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, or Grace Kelly in The Swan, or Grace Kelly in real life. That didn’t happen. She led an ordinary life in an ordinary Texas town, raising a family she loved, helping out at bake sales, dancing at church socials and charity balls. By her 80s she’d never left the US and barely left Texas. Her children were all grown up and already letting go of their own dreams.

One day Elizabeth booked a world cruise. She spent nine months on the high seas, seeing new places, gazing at foreign clouds, dancing each night after dinner. To dance made her feel as though the beautiful world was all still waiting for her. When the cruise ended, she wasn’t ready to stop dancing.

She lives aboard the ship now. She sold her house and the family business and the money should last her until the end. Sometimes her children come to visit her, accompanying her from Santiago to Sydney, say, or between Istanbul and Nice. She’s happy to see them but she thinks they’re wasting their lives, because none of them have learnt to dance. 

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