We lived in Singapore in the sixties and seventies - my father was in the Royal Air Force and we lived in RAF Changi, enjoying an idyllic life in the tropical sun. To occupy her days my mother was part of a local troupe called “The Aquastunt Girls,” an all-girl expat group who spent their days in the camp pool, sporting violently colored rubber caps and matching swimsuits, practicing synchronized swimming. I’ve always been fascinated by this sport (and can still perform pretty good somersaults and handstands myself after years watching my mother) so decided to look further.
At the turn of the 20th century, synchronized swimming was known as water ballet. The first recorded competition was in 1891 in Berlin, Germany. Many swim clubs were formed around that time, and the sport simultaneously developed within several countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the USA. As well as existing as a sport, it often constituted a popular addition to Music Hall evenings in the larger variety theatres of London or Glasgow which were equipped with huge on-stage water tanks for the purpose. In 1907, Australian Annette Kellerman popularised the sport when she performed in a glass tank as an underwater ballerina in the New York Hippodrome. After experimenting with various diving actions and stunts in the water, Katherine Curtis started one of the first water ballet clubs at the University of Chicago, where the team began executing strokes, “tricks,” and floating formations. On May 27, 1939, the first U.S. synchronized swimming competition took place at Wright Junior College between Wright and the Chicago Teachers’ College.
Competitive swimmer and MGM movie star Esther Williams is often credited with bringing the sport to the masses. Williams set multiple national and regional swimming records in her late teens as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. Unable to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics because of the outbreak of World War II, she joined Billy Rose’s Aquacade, where she took on the role vacated by Eleanor Holm after the show’s move from New York City to San Francisco. There, she spent five months swimming alongside Olympic swimmer and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller. It was at the Aquacade that Williams caught the attention of MGM scouts. After appearing in several small roles, alongside Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy film, and future five time co-star Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe, Williams made a series of films in the 1940s and early 1950s known as “aquamusicals”, which featured elaborate performances with synchronized swimming and diving. From 1945 to 1949, Williams had at least one film listed among the 20 highest grossing films of the year. In 1952, Williams appeared in her only biographical role, as the aforementioned Annette Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid, which would go on to become her nickname while at MGM.
What Of It? Despite its decidedly kitsch undertones, swimming in formation is actually pretty complex stuff - technically channeling (have you ever tried a underwater group pirouette without making a splash in the water?) and physically demanding. When it was heralded into the Olympics in 1984 people sneered at it (one reporter unkindly referred to it as “water-borne cheerleading”) until they saw the incredibly difficult moves, lifts and maneuvers that make up a routine. Routines are usually composed of “hybrids” (leg movements) and arm or stroke sections. They often incorporate lifts or throws, an impressive move in which a group of swimmers lift or throw another swimmer out of the water. Swimmers are synchronized both to each other and to the music. During a routine swimmers can never use the bottom of the pool for support, but rather depend on sculling motions with the arms, and eggbeater kick to keep afloat. After the performance, the swimmers are judged and scored on their performance based on technical merit and artistic impression. Technical skill, patterns, expression, and synchronisation are all critical to achieving a high score.
I Am Curious about the overlaps between artistry and physicality, about kitsch and its origins, about the beauty of something as simple as underwater ballet and of course, how something my mother loved in a place I call home still fascinates and speaks to me today.