This picture is real. It is not an optical illusion caused by a woman sitting on a rock and holding half a fish, as a certain comedy band has suggested. These mermaids are real. You can learn to swim like a mermaid.
Mermaid swimming cam be approached as a recreational activity or as a performing art: a kind of underwater dancing. While researching mermaid swimming, I scrutinized the fantastical activity with the lens of my own experiences as a swimmer and as a dancer. Having done so, I feel the need to share my insight.
When I looked at videos of mermaid-style swimming my first thought was: “that looks like the most inefficient way to swim imaginable.”
You see, mermaids don’t really swim like fish. Most fish swim with tail fins that are vertical and swish from left to right. Mermaid tails, however, move horizontally because they are attached to human bodies with hip and knee joints. If anything, mermaids (both real and imaginary) swim more like dolphins. Mermaid swimming is also counter-intuitive compared to most other types of swimming because it relies on the swimmer using only one lower limb: a tail. Bipeds can simulate the feeling of swimming with a tail by wearing a large, single flipper, called a monofin, over their two feet and slipping into a long tail piece. The tail is made of close-clinging fabric, just like most swimsuits.
The undulating motion that mermaid swimmers use is similar to the dolphin kick (remember what I said above?). However, in competitive swimming, the dolphin kick includes a lot of vigorous arm motions to pull the swimmer forward in the water. Mermaid swimming does use arms, but the strokes are milder—they’re more for steering the swimmer while the tail provides most of the forward momentum.
Sounds like work, doesn’t it? When I researched the Weeki Wachee Mermaid performers in Florida (link to this piece: http://hellogiggles.com/town-full-mermaids-glorious/) I was struck both by the beauty of their dancing and by the effort it must take to do such strenuous swimming while appearing graceful and, of course, smiling all the while. Because mermaids are happy and friendly all the time, you see.
(And I thought my job was difficult!)
So, can anyone be a mermaid? Hard to say. The Montreal-based mermaid school, AquaMermaid (AquaSirène in French), has a website that states that their pupils include the young and the old, and people of all genders. However, the majority of the site’s photos, especially the examples of their offered photo shoots, are predominantly white, skinny, young women. There are a few young men (some buff, and some a little heavier), and there are some round-cheeked kids on the kids’ birthday party page. But most of the photos give the impression that only the kind of women who appear on magazine covers can be mermaids.
The same can be said for Weeki Wachee Mermaid performers. Looking alike seems to be part of their performance aesthetic. It would be interesting to see a mermaid show that had more diversity in their cast. Maybe we will if mermaid swimming becomes more popular.
Weeki Wachee’s performers must be not only fit, strong swimmers, but also good at holding their breath; they use a breathing tube rather than any kind of scuba device. The result is that breaths must be fit in alongside their choreography, so timing is vital.
Mermaid performances involve being totally underwater most of the time. Someone who floats naturally (like me) might have a tricky time submerging and staying submerged long enough to use their shimmery tail. However, recreational mermaid swimming allows for surfacing, so there is plenty of air to be had.
When I was on my school’s swim team, I had a hard time holding my breath for any length of time. I also loathed the dolphin kick. But I don’t care. Even if it’s difficult, even if it requires learning to move in new ways and to use muscles that will undoubtedly beg for mercy, I intend to try mermaid swimming. There’s talk about the AquaMermaid school opening a branch in Toronto, and I want in.
Like most children who watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I have often wondered what it would be like to swim like a mermaid, and to breathe and live underwater. And while I certainly cannot do the latter, the internet has taught me that I can acquire a tail, just as Ariel acquired legs—and I won’t even have to bargain with a sea witch.
Tails aren’t required for swimming, but wouldn’t you like one? This way we’ll be… be part of that world.
-Contributed by Miranda Whittaker