SAN FRANCISCO — The three 50-plus men stared at their shuffling feet as they fox-trotted around a makeshift dance floor with their partners.
''You don't need to be Fred Astaire,'' dance judge Stan Kravitz had told the contestants, ''but the object is to make a woman feel like Ginger Rogers.''
After several slight collisions and missteps, the men stopped dancing as the music ended. ''We survived,'' said dancer Jack Ross with a sigh of relief.
Mr. Ross and the others were vying for jobs as ''gentlemen hosts'' aboard Royal Cruise Line ships. Those with two left feet need not apply.
Eighty-one men age 50 and up from across the country traveled to Royal's headquarters in San Francisco this summer for the host tryouts. Knowing the difference between the fox trot and the rumba - and which fork to use at dinner - could earn these gentlemen a free ticket to cruise the world for four months a year.
Lauretta Blake, president of The Working Vacation Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., which places hosts with Royal and other cruise lines, calls the men ''knights of the sea.''
''They're part of a return to a more polite time, where chivalry, gallantry, and social graces are honored and honorable,'' Ms. Blake says.
An estimated one-quarter of cruise passengers are single, according to industry data, and on many ships single women outnumber single men. So Royal and other cruise lines started hosting programs to make sure the women got into the social whirl.
''Our passengers entrust us with dreams they have treasured, often for a lifetime,'' says Bruce Good, a Royal official, to the aspiring hosts. ''It is our duty and our privilege to assist them in making their dreams come true.''
For those with the requisite table manners, wardrobe, and dance skills, the job prospects are good. Royal had arranged the interviews in the hope of beefing up its list of 140 hosts to 200 or more, and all who passed the tryout would be added to the list.
''If your motivation is to get a free cruise - and that's a logical expectation - that will hold you for four to 12 hours after you get on board,'' Mr. Good says. ''We'll have you working from the time you close your door on the way to breakfast in the morning to 1 a.m. when you come back to your cabin after a full evening of dancing. Our hosts dance about five or six hours in a day, every day, for 30 to 45 days, no Sundays or holidays off,'' he says. ''You'll quickly realize that we don't pay you enough.''
Hanky-panky is forbidden
Tony Laudari, freshly tanned from a cruise in the Greek Isles, adds, ''The hours are long, and there's endless dancing. The women are all charming - but some are a little demanding. But the good far outweighs the bad.'' The retired Santa Rosa, Calif., bank executive counts a record 155 trips as a host. Six to eight hosts go on each cruise, more if the passenger list shows a lot of single women aboard.
While the hosts' duties are purely social - as dancing, card-playing, and dining companions - the host program itself is all business. Hanky-panky with passengers on board is strictly forbidden, although some hosts have married women they met at sea and later courted.
''Sometimes it's hard, with the moon over the Greek Isles and the Mediterranean on the horizon,'' Mr. Laudari tells the men. ''But you'll find a cruise ship is a very small place. If you're out walking on the deck with a lady alone under the stars, you'll get called on it.'' Penalties are harsh: Errant hosts must leave the ship at the next port.
The first hosts were placed on Royal ships 16 years ago, but the cruise line started the program officially in 1982. While initially derided as ''geriatric gigolos,'' the hosts today are popular fixtures on the ships. The program has spread to at least a half-dozen other lines.
Betty Brannen of Atlanta took her first cruise aboard a Royal ship in 1981. A veteran of 28 Royal cruises, she credits the host program with making her solo travels active and memorable.
''I travel alone, and the main reason I keep coming back is because of the friendly hosts and Greek crew,'' she said on a recent 12-day Mediterranean cruise. ''I feel very safe and secure and know that they'll take care of me, that there will always be someone to socialize with.''
'It's a dream job'
Before a host gets anywhere near a cruise ship, however, he is carefully screened: There is an application to be filled out, including a resume with letters of recommendation. If everything is in order, the applicant is asked to schedule an interview with Blake.
The mass interviews at Royal's headquarters are the final step. There, host hopefuls participate in a half-day session that includes an orientation, question-and-answer session with current hosts, an interview, and the dance screening.
''Who ever thought at our age we'd be in such demand?'' asked host David Hopkins after a morning interview session.
''I'm just thankful that we are,'' Laudari said as he led June Kravitz onto the dance floor, clearly relishing his role. ''It's a dream job, even with all the long hours of constantly being 'on.' That's why all the fellas and I are here.''
* Aspiring hosts should contact Lauretta Blake at The Working Vacation Inc., 4277 Lake Santa Clara Drive, Santa Clara, CA 95054.