When I hear the words "river dance," I tend to recoil with thoughts of green velveteen costumes, Michael Flatley's exposed, sweaty chest, and the flagrant overuse of the penny whistle.
But on a blustery day in May, I watched a very different kind of river dance along the banks of the Mersey with more than a million people. There were no penny whistles, but there were the three magnificent ships of the Cunard Line — the Queen Victoria, the Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen Mary 2 (pictured above left to right) — gathered in one place for the first time in history. The crowd was so excited at the spectacle, it was as if the queen herself were there handing out free Werther's Original caramels from her purse.
All the fireworks, the extravagant light shows projected onto historic buildings, and the gathering of the dancing queens on the river was a celebration of the 175th anniversary of the Cunard Line and its connection to Liverpool. The luxury Queen Mary 2 and her sisters are now based out of Southampton (and owned by Carnival), but at least for a day the Liverpudlians who stood for hours in the cold recalled the glory days when Liverpool was a leading port of the British Empire.
I stood in biting wind for hours to watch along with the locals. When my fingertips became so numb that I had a hard time holding my phone, I began to understand why the rowdy ladies standing next to me were keeping warm by drinking whiskey from a flask and singing Frankie Goes to Hollywood songs. I learned that FGTH — best known for its risque 1984 hit "Relax" — was from Liverpool and one of the whiskey sippers claimed she went to school with lead singer Holly Johnson. Perhaps to prove her point, she started singing "Relax" while dancing with a Union Jack tied to her waist and a feather boa on her neck.
At least this bit of sloppy entertainment took my mind off the cold.
I assumed this interaction would be the highlight of my day until I saw the three magnificent ocean liners arrive in the river and begin their dance, which consisted of a coordinated 360-degree turnaround while cannons fired and tugboats spayed impressive V shapes of water. This was a historic moment.
Two months after that incredible sight, I'm happy to report that my fingers have thawed and that Bostonians will have an opportunity to take part in Cunard's 175th birthday party when the Queen Mary 2 docks in Boston.
This isn't simply a case of the luxury liner pulling into port for the day. The Queen Mary's Boston stop represents a 175-year history between Cunard and Boston that started in 1840, when the Britannia sailed into East Boston, its first US port of call.
"When the Britannia arrived in Boston, it was a very big moment for Boston, and the city really celebrated," said Cunard historian Michael Gallagher.
For residents of Boston, the Britannia was a modern marvel. It was the fastest way to get goods from Europe (less than two weeks from Liverpool). It transported passengers, coal, mail, livestock, and, most importantly, cats to help control the ship's rat problem.
The East Boston Company spent about $40,000 to build a dock for the Britannia and thousands attended a lavish banquet to welcome the ship. The trans-Atlantic route was an important link to Europe for Boston's economy.
The event was also shrouded in mystery. An elaborate silver cup, called the Boston cup, that the city presented to Cunard, disappeared that night, only to turn up in 1967. No one knows where it was for 137 years. It's now displayed on the Queen Mary 2 in a secure case, safe from sticky-fingered bandits.
And so Boston celebrates Cunard again, albeit in a less dramatic fashion, when the ship docks here on July 12.
Queen Mary 2 Captain Kevin Oprey will be at Fenway Park in the afternoon to throw out the first pitch at the Red Sox-Yankees game and be back onboard at 9:45 p.m. for a fireworks display that will signal the ship's departure for New York.
This weekend's docking of the Queen Mary 2 may lack the drama of the three queens ceremony in Liverpool, but perhaps you can replicate the experience by wrapping yourself in a flag and singing some Frankie Goes to Hollywood while watching the fireworks. Just leave the whiskey at home, please.