P&O’s Strictly Come Dancing-themed cruise now allows clients to book a private lesson with a pro. Jo Kessel puts on her dancing shoes to try it out.
Where should I look?” I ask my new teacher. “Into my eyes,” he replies with a cheeky grin. With that, he pulls me closer and I giggle nervously.
How can I not? He looks like Prince Charming and we’re mere inches apart. In any other scenario, such proximity between teacher and pupil might appear inappropriate, but this is no ordinary class.
I’m on a P&O Strictly Come Dancing-themed cruise and this is a one-to-one lesson with a pro from the TV show: Australian dancer Trent Whiddon. He partnered with Pixie Lott on the show in 2014, and now he and I are about to dance the cha-cha together.
While P&O’s partnership with the BBC series is in its ninth year, the liner has recently updated onboard experience. In addition to a plethora of free Strictly-related events, guests can now book a private lesson like mine with a pro – a godsend for a Strictly fan like me who’s watched Dirty Dancing a gazillion times and has always longed to give dancing a go.
Filming me trying to master the “rock” and “step” of the cha-cha is my 14-year-old daughter,
Hannah. I’d expected my performance to double her up in stitches, but instead she’s full of praise.
“You’re good, Mummy,” she says, and she’s just as impressed when we add a spin and a move called the “New Yorker” (releasing a hand so we can turn out, arm outstretched). She even claps our performance when we finally put the routine to music: KC and The Sunshine Band’s Boogie Shoes.
Someone else claps along too. It’s pro Amy Dowden, who partnered with Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules on the show last year and comedian Brian Conley the year before. She critiques my hands, suggesting I make them look prettier by putting my “naughty finger” down, and then sets me a challenge – a lift.
Before I know it I’m watching Amy demonstrate and then leaping into Trent’s arms myself. Holding my core tight, I beam from ear to ear as I’m hoisted, twirled and swirled and oh, the joy of it! I feel like I’m flying.
There’s so much adrenaline coursing through my veins that, despite feeling exhausted, I don’t want the 45-minute lesson to end. I’m on a high, and hours later I’m still smiling as I lounge poolside on the top deck.
I’m on P&O’s flagship Britannia and I’ve joined for the second half of a 14-day Portugal and Canary Islands cruise. While I chose the private lesson, your clients might prefer to book the new £85pp Private Dinner with a Pro instead.
Fellow guests tell me that dancer Giovanni Pernice hosted this a week earlier and apparently charmed the sequinned pants off everybody as he sat next to them each in turn. Gorka Marquez was there too, and one lady said his appearance had cured her seasickness instantly.
Trent’s last words to me were: “Keep it up.” The beauty is that it’s easy to do so onboard a Strictly-themed cruise. The next day, Hannah and I attend a samba masterclass run by Amy, then the day after that we try out Trent’s rumba.
And at night we practise these moves at some of Britannia’s live music venues. Hannah’s as hooked as I am – we can’t get enough.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that a Strictly cruise is all about the tango and the foxtrot. While there’s a temptation to stay onboard to soak up the sun poolside, we’re pleased for the change of scenery (and pace) at the ports of call.
Lanzarote is our first, and we take a ship excursion to its volcanic interior for a three-hour trek across what resembles a lunar landscape – an endless vista of black peaks, ash and molten lava created by a six-year-long eruption back in the 1700s. The otherworldly panorama is like nothing we’ve ever seen and, when the guide leads us into the heart of one of the calderas – or craters – we pray the mountain remains calm.
Next stop is Lisbon, where there are no volcanoes but many hills to climb. One of them leads us to the ruins of Sao Jorge castle for giddying views of both the city sprawled beneath us and of the Tagus river that runs through it.
We even spot our ship far below. Portugal’s capital is famed for its custard tarts (known as pasteis de nata) and for a treat we head to the Fabrica da Nata – a little-known cafe that locals claim makes the best in town. The tarts are crumbly, custardy and deliciously light – and well worth the half-hour walk to get there.
Back on Britannia, cuisine has a more British twist and, with chicken tikka masala our national dish, it’s no surprise that the curries in Horizon buffet (as well as those in specialty restaurant Sindhu) are superb. Ditto for the shepherd’s pies, roasts, and sponge puddings. The piece de resistance, however, is Eric Lanlard’s £15pp afternoon tea. Everything’s served in miniature, including mini cheesecakes, lobster brioches, tarts, and mousses.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, it’s always nice to return to our balcony cabin. We’re particularly partial to the White Company toiletries provided, and charm our steward, hoping he’ll deliver extra bottles of moisturising lotion, which he does. This helps our skin look (and smell) as lush as the onboard Strictly stars.
Passengers constantly gossip about meeting the dancers, having their photos taken with them and watching the shows they put on in the ship’s theatre. And dotted around the atrium are mannequins sporting the sparkly, sequinned outfits worn by the stars and pros of the show in 2018 – Pussycat Doll Ashley Roberts’ red dress, a skimpy number worn by winner Stacey Dooley and a gorgeous Kate Silverton robe.
Britannia’s entertainment manager Neil Oliver tells me why Strictly fits so well with P&O. “We’re about the glamour, the formal nights and the dancing, so our guests love it. Every event is packed, and I’ve already had several people ask me when the next Strictly cruise is.
Two final highlights remain. The first is a Wardrobe Experience (£10). As well as getting the lowdown on how each dress on the show is handmade in three days (including the application of thousands of stones and feathers), I get to try on the one Dooley wore when she danced the charleston.
The second is the end-of-cruise Strictly Guest Dance Competition held in Britannia’s theatre, complete with a judging panel, which includes the captain and professional dancer Karen Hardy.
Despite the progress, I’ve made I’m not brave enough to enter, but the passengers who take part are admirable, and a hoot to watch. Back home I smile (and melt a little) as I watch the videos Hannah filmed of me dancing with Trent – aka Prince Charming. I’ve always dreamt of being swept off my feet by a prince, and this one-to-one lesson came close to fulfilling that fantasy.
And by doing it on a Strictly Come Dancing Cruise, I felt like Cinderella going to the ball.
When to go: P&O offers seven- and 14-night Strictly cruises onboard Ventura, Britannia and Azura. Dates for 2020 vary, with the first cruise departing for the Canary Islands and Iberia on 4 April onboard Ventura.
Packing: All P&O ships have UK plug sockets, so there’s no need to pack adaptors. Recommend clients take smart clothing for the twice-weekly formal nights.
What to wear for the lesson: Comfortable footwear is essential. Tell clients to consider wearing a dance dress for the photos, otherwise stick to comfortable clothing. Also recommend they take water.
Find contacts in TTG's Little Black Book
Why choose P&O Cruises? The decision lies in the choice! We like to treat guests to a taste of the good life, or rather the great life!