Dream Boats


"Cruise ship crews never admit to watching Love Boat.  But when Michael and I were on the show, crew members were coming up to us saying, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV,’" Berna Miller, a dance teacher of 30 years laughs.  For over a decade, she and her partner, Michael Donovan have taught ballroom dance to passengers aboard the Crystal Harmony. As the ship’s salaried dance teachers, the couple enjoys opportunities such as studying Samba in South America and hiking up Montreal’s Mount Whitney in the moonlight.

The partners met over a decade ago at a Salsa hotspot with the unlikely name of Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, CA.  Miller was on the lookout for a new dance partner when she spotted Donovan and asked him to dance. Then he invited her to midnight coffee and offered free lessons at his ballroom classes held at the Hilton. Eleven years later, the sparks are still flying.  Miller and Donovan hold hands, call each other "honey" and stare adoringly at one another during the course of our interview.  

Their close relationship helps them to keep the classes fun for the many traveling couples on board. One of their many challenges is to keep these new dancers from taking this part of their vacation too seriously. To maintain the holiday mood during their daily morning and afternoon classes, they try to steer husbands and wives away from serious disagreements about the steps by explaining, "There are no mistakes, just choices."  

As for technique, Donovan answers that, "You have to camouflage technique.  For instance, for men, I use the idea of blocking in football- right shoulder to right shoulder - for creating correct frame."

"Since we’re at sea, we compare the dances to the environment," continues Donovan. "The waltz is like a wave. We show the heel lead of one starting from the ground. The crest of the wave is the rising action on two and three, coming back to the ground by the end of three."

For Miller, the romance of The Red Shoes led her to take ballet classes as a child. "Talented, but too tall" was the teacher’s verdict. Not one to give up, she studied modern and jazz with Merce Cunningham and Welland Lathrop, a Northern California modern dance aficionado. After graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, she put her skills as a dance major to work by teaching at various California colleges such as Pierce, Oxnard and Ventura. She also taught jazz and modern dance at her own Westlake School of Dance.

In 1988, a car crash nearly immobilized Miller. Dutifully heeding her doctor’s admonitions, the teacher said good-bye to her modern dance classes and jazz routines. To keep movement in her life, she signed up for a series at the neighborhood Arthur Murray studio. One of her instructors, Lloyd Pauze, was so impressed with her aptitude for ballroom that he asked her to be his dance partner. The liaison lasted a year and led to her new career as a dance teacher on cruise ships.

Donovan entered the world of dance in a circuitous route.  He earned a living as an engineer until friends prompted him to participate in classes at the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association with the Stevens Sisters. Additional classes with Latin champion Enio Cordoba encouraged Donovan to change his career from engineer to dance instructor.

Before meeting Miller, he taught ballroom for 10 years at various California dance clubs through the state’s Parks and Recreation Services.  The former engineer finds his background is still useful in the classroom. "In class, Berna usually sends the engineers or those with a linear bend to their minds over to me.  I know how they think," Donovan chuckles.

Together, the pair truly enjoy what they do. Building classes around cruise themes such as, Samba Serenade, Seas of Splendor and Latin Romance keeps them challenged and lets them continue dancing. According to Donovan, job benefits include, "teaching, meeting people from different countries, performing on board, and traveling to splendid ports of call." Miller adds that, "The crew is made up of people from 37 different countries and cultures and the cruise lines treat us quite well with generous accommodations." Miller and Donovan still dream of scheduling Argentine Tango sessions with the masters of Buenos Aires in the future.

For now, however, the dancing duo is content to sail the seas, leading a romance novel-like life of adventure and dance. An outsider might say the couple literally dances on water. But Miller may be closer to the truth when she explains, "When you dance, you glide like an elegant ship on the water and magic happens."