Mermaid History #1: The history of professional mermaids is a lot older than people think! The world-famous Weeki Wachee Springs live mermaid shows dates back to the 1940’s…in fact, their first show took place in 1947 on October 13th (which is also my birthday!). At the time, they did not incorporate actual costume tails…many “mermaid shows” at roadside attractions, carnivals and even at Weeki Wachee used the term “mermaid” for water ballerinas who could perform for extended periods underwater, without surfacing to breathe. In the case of Weeki Wachee, this was managed by air hoses hidden within the scenery for the performers to use periodically through the show.
Mermaiding. Simply put, it is very different from princessing. Starting out as a character actor was very beneficial and really gave me a leg up on the task, but it’s just so much more complex than your regular character work. Let’s start at the beginning, just a few weeks ago.
After spending almost a year on research and consulting other mermaids, I was ready to tackle this whole mermaiding thing myself. Eventually I’d need a costume, a structure for gigs, and oh yeah, one of those crazy expensive tails. But just starting out on the road of Mermaid Boot Camp meant I’d have to begin at the very beginning. So what did I need?
I’d need a swimming monofin (check, one Finis Rapid), I’d need goggles and a swim cap to protect my eyes and fragile blonde hair from the pool water (check, thanks eBay), a bathing suit (got an old snake-print bikini in my drawer, barely used) and I’d need a pool for daily practice. I haven’t been in a pool in years, and I would need a LOT of work to bring myself back up to my former swimming speed, especially with a bad back. Now where to find a pool?
Turns out the only pool within miles of me was at the YMCA, which is just down the street. Although they charge 60 bucks a month for membership (which I could in no way afford), they DID have an application for lower-income households. If you qualify, they’d reduce your monthly fee for a year. Awesome!
I picked up the application and saw that I’d have to provide tax records, proof of income AND fill out a section on why it would be beneficial for me to be a member of the Y. Why do I deserve this reduced rate and how will I benefit? What do I hope to do or use at the Y?
After deciding against my first thought of scribbling POOL POOL POOL MERMAID POOL NEED WORK all over the sheet, I decided to just tell them the truth: that it was for my job and I really needed the practice, plus it would be good rehabilitation for my back after my car accident. I promised not to bring my actual tail in if they didn’t want me to, only my monofin. I attached my tax info showing that I met the financial requirements, and turned it in. Then I waited.
It was a little over a week when a nice woman at the Y called me back and said I’d been approved…and that everyone who met to decide these things had got a good laugh from my application. They weren’t sure what a professional mermaid was, but they were willing to let me swim. She hardly had time to hang up the phone before I was tearing into the parking lot, propelling myself out of my car and over to the front desk, cell phone still in my hand. I wanted to sign that contract before they changed their minds.
You see, mermaids face a bit of discrimination at public pools sometimes. There was a post on the mer forums just the other day about a girl who was banned from swimming in her local pool with her tail because they deemed it to be “a large pool toy,” which was prohibited. The comments section on the news article about it filled up with nasty comments about her being a pedophile…something that some mermaids are actually pretty used to hearing, like a mermaid tail is some kind of floating windowless van full of candy and puppies. Most people don’t understand the profession, and assume that you’re wearing it in public to attract small children. I have to admit, that is a huge leap in logic for me. I can’t really get my head around that. But the fact remains that mermaids don’t often find mermaid-friendly places to swim.
The YMCA has been more or less recommended by the community as a good place to monofin and can sometimes be copacetic about tails, too. This is important, because swimming in a tail is different than just using the fin. The fin is great for exercise, but you NEED to swim in your tail at least once a week for practice. The monofin doesn’t reproduce the buoyancy issues, restrictiveness and weight of the tail that you must learn to deal with as you swim. But so many people are just completely unused to seeing mermaid performers, and quite frankly they don’t know what to make of it.
I never realized how much MORE discrimination mermaids face than princesses. I feel like no matter how hard my princess job was, it was a picnic compared to mermaiding. At least in public, princesses aren’t sneered at quite so much. People have a frame of reference…they know characters walk around at Disney Parks. They may have seen characters at parties or events. Princesses aren’t too much of a strange thing to swallow, especially if it’s an old familiar character like Snow White. But mermaids are weird in many people’s minds. They seem to think you’re dressed like that to upset them, or to be strange, or counter-culture, or to get attention. They actively resent it, because it never occurs to them that this is a job like any other. So public and club pool location has become a thing that is actively ranked among mermaids…this place is mer-friendly, that place is hostile, if you stay at this hotel you’ll be OK, but if you stay at THAT hotel, you’ll be kicked out.
It’s a sad fact that unless you have a private pool at home, a local lake to swim in or some other easy access to water for regular training, it will be extraordinarily hard to work as a mermaid. That’s why so many professional mermaids live next to bodies of water or have large pools of their own. All I’ve got is a monthly pass to the Y and a solemn promise not to hog the lanes at 5 am when I swim with my enormous monofin on. But it will have to do for now.
I have to admit that I was anxious as anything to swim for the first time. Gross, I look so FAT in my old swimsuit, I don’t want anyone to see me! What if they stare at the giant monofin under my arm? What if I put it on and sink like a rock and have to be rescued by a lifeguard? What’s with this pool schedule…can I still go when there’s a class in the pool, or will there not be room? What’s with the lap lanes? I’ve never used them before…can’t I just splash around in a corner by myself, or will that bother people? What if this swimming makes my back injuries worse, not better? I repeat, I DON’T WANT ANYONE TO SEE ME IN MY STUPID SUIT.
Finally, I figured it was now or never, so I sucked it up, put on a brave face…and went to the pool during a scheduled elderly aquacise class. Hard to be self-conscious about looks when you’re the youngest person in the pool. I got changed, snuck in around the side of the pool to an empty corner, stuck my feet in my monofin and put my feet in the water. I had no idea if I could even swim in this thing, and the shallow end was totally occupied by the class. What if I jumped in and sank? I haven’t been swimming in years!
I took a really big breath, wiggled off the edge of the tiles and jumped into the water.
I may not have been born to mermaid, but I WAS BORN TO MONOFIN. I have never tried something new and had it be this incredibly natural and easy. I’ve never even dolphin-kicked a day in my life, but I was tearing up and down the lane like I’d been doing it forever. I really couldn’t believe it. It was like discovering something I’d always known how to do, but had forgotten until now. I was so stoked that I stayed in the pool and swam until I was collapsing from exhaustion more than a hour later, just endlessly swimming up and down the lanes. I felt great, my back felt great, my fin felt great, and when I woke up the next morning after a perfect night’s sleep, it took me a minute to realize that I had woken up, for the first time in MONTHS, without racking pains in my back. Usually I laugh at people who say they can’t get out of bed in the morning, because I wake up with intense back cramps and pain and have no choice but to get up immediately. Laying still just hurts too much. My back muscles were so weak from disuse after my accident that merely sleeping caused them to cramp up. Now that I swim, I sleep much better and feel less pain upon waking. I’ll never be a hundred percent better because the injuries are pretty permanent, but at least getting this swimming exercise, as opposed to exercise that impacts my spine, makes it easier to tolerate. I’m basically never really pain-free at any point and never will be, but I have to make a living somehow. Still, it makes training really, REALLY slow-going. The last thing I need is to push too hard and make it much worse than it was before!
At the pool, a few people in the class noticed my monofin…hard to miss it, because it’s huge. “You look like a mermaid,” several people have said to me (which may be true, as the monofin is roughly shaped like a mermaid’s fluke). I got asked what it was for and told them about my training.
"My cousin saw a mermaid once," a woman told me, as she nonchalantly relaxed against the side of the pool. "She was on this boat out on vacation down in the Bahamas and she looked in the water and there it was, a FACE. Like a lady’s face, looking up at her. And like, it swam away, like a fish."
The elderly woman next to her shrugged her shoulders and nodded.
"Who knows what’s in the ocean?" she said. "I mean, there’s got to be a reason why there are so many mermaid stories."
I didn’t want to call nonsense on these women, so I just sort of sat and marveled at how adults can be just as ready to trust fantasy as children, even if it comes to mistaking vacationing coral divers for mermaids. I…really had nothing to say to them about it. Still don’t. Anyway.
The dolphin kick mermaids use is SO intuitive…just imagine doing the worm, but in water, and that’s the dolphin kick. You wiggle up, and you wiggle down, and with a monofin on your feet, it’s like you have a motor attached to you.
Which is great, except for the part where I go so fast that I swim out of my bikini bottoms.
Yeah…that new one-piece suit I just shelled out for is going to come in really handy for today’s swim. Speaking of which, it’s almost 5 am, and the pool is about to open, so I’m heading out. I swim as early as possible, to avoid other swimmers and focus on training. Soon I will have to confront two big problems…the fact that I can’t hold my breath underwater at ALL, and asking the Y for permission to bring my tail in to train. Just gonna take it one step at a time.
A fellow mermaid told me to envision myself as a graceful mermaid, in order to focus on the correct form and dedicate myself to the training better. But I’m more like a ninja turtle in my head…training my awesome and super-peculiar craft in secret, using every day to get stronger and more agile, not sure if the outside world will accept me when I emerge.
I wonder if the Y allows katanas in the pool.
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I am now convinced: you are a national treasure.
Anxiety kicks in and all I can do is lay in bed and try not to vomit.
bettymcraycray replied to your post “So for some reason, I’ve got friends who aren’t going to SDCC who want…”
We don’t usually keep our bags after the con so I’ll letcha know if we get any of those!
SWEET!!! Even if you get one you don’t want right after the bat and can swap right then and there for one of those… I’d die thankful.