Utah's Voodoo Pearl Mermaids practice the art of mermaiding
"Mermaids are the new vampires," said Christel Edwards, leaning up against the side of a pool. Her tail, with more than 10,000 hand-sewn beads, reflects the early morning sunlight.
Two years ago, Edwards decided to take her love for mermaids to a new level by becoming one.
Within the first week of creating her tail, she had a gig.
About a year later, she performed at AVAST, a water show put on by Voodoo Productions, which specializes in cirque and other unusual entertainment for corporate and private events. At the show, she enlisted the help of cirque performer Heidi Ewell and pinup model Jade Griffin. By the time the show ended, the three Salt Lake City women had formed the Voodoo Pearl Mermaids.
Legends of mermaids can be found in various cultures, from the sirens in Greek mythology to Hans Christian Andersen's 1836 tale of "The Little Mermaid." The half-human, half-fish creature plays a different role depending on the story being told, but the fascination remains the same.
Walt Disney's 1989 "The Little Mermaid" increased awareness of the mythological creature. There are mermaid festivals and conventions across the country, and publications such as Mermaids and Mythology are quickly gaining a following within the mer community. There even have been documentaries on whether the mermaid actually exists.
One of the most celebrated professional mermaids is Hannah Fraser, a performing mermaid who also is an ocean conservationist. Fraser's website, http://www.hannahfraser.com/mermaid, answers mer-enthusiast questions such as how she trains to hold her breath for two minutes at a time and what it is like to swim with sharks, manatees and dolphins.
The Voodoo Pearl Mermaids consider Fraser a goddess, but they also look up to Esther Williams, the famous swimmer who introduced the world to the art of synchronized swimming in the late 1940s. It is Williams whom the Pearl Mermaids want to emulate.
The Pearl Mermaids practice the art of mermaiding at least three hours a week. They do laps, tread water and work on breath holds, said Edwards, who along with Griffin can now hold her breath for a minute and a half.
Cupped hands and figure-eight movements of the arms keep the mermaids' shoulders above water. Tails are kept to the side and elegantly move back and forth in the water.
The mermaids also practice the "dolphin swim," a style that incorporates a dancelike body roll. The dolphin swim requires minimal use of the legs so the tail appears to naturally flow up and down.
"A dolphin swim propels you through the water a lot quicker than just kicking your legs," explained Edwards, who said that the use of a monofin helps them perfect the style.
"We are working on more synchronized swimming both with and without tails," Edwards said. "All of us have been inspired by mermaids of old."
In their performances, the Pearl Mermaids strive for the classic feel of aqua-musicals such as "Ziegfeld Follies" (which came out in 1945) in which Williams portrayed herself.
The biggest challenge the trio faces is finding a deep pool for practice. So far they've found three recreational centers with pools deeper than 12 feet.
But the mermaids, who perform everywhere from children's parties to high-end events, have mastered the art of illusion even in the shallowest of pools.
Watching the Voodoo Pearl Mermaids in action is magical and makes believers out of the audience, said Jennifer Tarasevich, booking agent and owner of Voodoo Productions. "Children and adults alike are equally fascinated."
She said more than any of the other Voodoo Production performers, audience members seem to accept the illusion "and respond as though they're interacting with authentic mermaids."
Shawn Zumbrunnen hired the Pearl Mermaids to perform at his daughter's birthday party.
"It is something she is going to remember her whole life," he said. "This was an experience like swimming with the dolphins."
Part of the experience is never seeing the performers out of their tails.
"Once you are in tail you embody that character. People really believe it and forget that we are actually human," said Edwards. "They forget that we don't have gills and that we actually need to breathe. I think we are doing a good job when they have in their heads that we are actually mermaids."
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