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February, 2016

Aquatic Dance

by Valerie

Trying to remember events that took place fifty years ago is sometimes an exercise in futility, but, as the old saying goes, there is nothing to be lost in trying. References to synchronized swimming recently surfaced in two completely unrelated conversations I had with different friends a couple of days apart. This curious coincidence stirred the vague recollections that I have of water ballet at the YMCA in Joliet, Illinois, during the mid-1960s. Luckily, I can talk with my mother and compare notes to see if what I remember is close to what she recalls, since she was the one involved in the sport at that time. Between the two of us, we managed to combine our imperfect memory morsels, at least determined what we know for facts, and exchanged a few entertaining details along the way.

My mother, Evelyn, grew up in Joliet and was involved at the YMCA from her high school years until I joined the band in grade school and the extracurricular activities became too numerous. She liked to swim and earned the required certificate that allowed her to help with group lessons, teaching the basics to young children. The pool at the Y was not large, and they would have up to 25 kids at a time in the water. It was, to put it mildly, chaotic.

Evelyn and her brother, Rich, swimming in a quarry known as "The Pit" near Joliet, 1949.

I also enjoyed the pool and took swimming lessons through the various programs offered at the Y. The first level was something like tadpole, followed by guppy, minnow, and fish. I think the highest level was shark, which was necessary to be on the swim team. I was not great at keeping the water out of my nose, so I never did all that well. My mother, though, was a wonderful swimmer. I thought she was as good as Esther Williams.

My sister, Vicky, is two years younger than me, and she also took swimming lessons, probably doing better at them than I did. She even participated in one of the water ballet programs during a scene that required a number of very young kids to swim across the pool. These children were all so small that they could not touch bottom even at the shallow end of the pool. They used water wings or some other floatation devices. While the kids were in the water at one of the rehearsals, a little girl slipped under while her mother was occupied in a different part of the pool. Vicky was nearby and, always being the cool-headed sort, simply reached down and pulled the child up to the surface.

At times, Vicky and I would sit on the bleachers next to the pool while our mother practiced with the other ladies for their public shows. We occupied ourselves with games or books, and I remember how it was always warm and humid. Those same bleachers accommodated the audience during performances. Evelyn participated in several programs over a period of a few years, but the details of most are lost. One, though, stands out for both of us, and it included an aquatic version of "Peter and the Wolf."

The music was the familiar Prokofiev score and, as was always the case for the performances, played over loudspeakers. The leader of the group was the wolf, and she used a rubber mask that belonged to our mother. Evelyn remembers that the mask collapsed against the woman's face the first time she went underwater with it and, although she was a very experienced swimmer, she nearly panicked. They solved the mask problem by cutting slits into the sides and also adding stiffener.

Although I cannot remember any other specific programs, I do remember my impressions of the ballets. They were very graceful and well-choreographed. Just like in the movies, the ladies had matching colored swimsuits and sometimes sashes or scarves that added to the glamour of it. They made circles and figure-eights and other pleasing formations. The lighting would change and sometimes they used colors or spotlights. At the beginning, they would dive into the water in a wave, as if each was attached to the next so that the overall effect was of a single movement, like legs of a millipede. Sometimes they would all be floating, then slowly sink down. It was mesmerizing. And they made it look easy! I tried to do some of the moves, so I quickly found out that they were NOT easy at all. I could never even float on my back without sinking, let alone try to bring one knee up and then lift my foot up into the air, which simply resulted in my sinking faster than usual. I did manage to learn to do a back dolphin, which was fun because it felt sort of neat to swim in a big arc like that and imagine that I looked graceful doing it. I also liked the idea of imitating a dolphin (as a 7 year old kid, I loved playing pretend games).

While discussing this topic with Evelyn, she told me of one episode that certainly made an impression on her. While rehearsing for one of the shows, they wanted to have the lights off until the women were in position in the pool, when the lights would then brighten to dramatic effect. The first time they tried this, all went well until the lights turned on. A number of very large cockroaches could then be seen on the edge of the pool, where they had come out of the drains. There was much screaming. Exterminators made regular visits to the YMCA, since the building also housed gymnasiums, locker rooms, residential quarters and a cafeteria, but, even after additional attempts at eradicating the vermin, the results were still the same. They decided to do without the blackouts.

The term "water ballet" is almost never used anymore. There are still groups that perform synchronized swimming, although I haven't heard about it in a long time so it is probably not particularly mainstream. It is physically demanding and takes great strength as well as control and teamwork. But the results are lovely to behold, and I am glad to have had the chance to observe this unique form of artistic expression.

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