BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Home Correspondent
By Jane Labous
Producer: Simon Coates
It’s a Thursday morning and the mermaids in the indoor pool at Blandford are already drawing a small crowd. Sunshine pouring through the windows illuminates two little mermaids happily flipping and rolling in the turquoise reflections. Their rainbow-coloured tails ripple and shimmer, for all the world as if they’ve swum straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. But in fact they’re quite real; Erin and Daisy, both aged 11, regional competitive swimmers who ‘mermaid’ in their free time.
As for me, well, I’m about to become a mermaid too. The crowd disperses and Mermaid Mershell, otherwise known as 43 year-old swimming instructor Michelle Forsbrey, leads me to the edge of the pool. “The first rule of mermaiding is: never stand on your tail!” she instructs, handing me a long, shimmering pink-and-blue garment with a psychedelic triangular fin on the end. “The second rule is, if your feet come out of it, call me for help!”
Mermaiding means kicking with your legs and feet together underwater, a powerful movement that works more core muscles than other swimming strokes. Plus the force brought about by kicking with a tail allows you to free-dive deeper with every breath. Aside from the physical aspects, there’s an aspect of escapism to this sport too. Amid our world’s chaotic reality, elemental experiences like mermaiding seem more and more appealing. Being at one with the water; staying entirely in the present, brings a sense of peace and poise away from arguments about the future. Perhaps that’s why adults as well as children are catching on – and celebrities. Britney Spears and Gerri Halliwell do it. But escapism doesn’t come cheap, an adult mermaid tail now sells online for about forty pounds.
Michelle began mermaiding after first a surfing then a skiing injury meant she had to stop her two favourite sports. “I did my rehabilitation and thought, I’m going to stay positive, get a mermaid tail and do a fun exercise. It has been amazing for my self-esteem.”
My own tail is surprisingly heavy. It’s made of foam and silicone and covered with the sort of sheeny fabric usually used to make dance costumes. I strap my feet into the fin part, then pull the tail over the top, up my legs and around my waist so that I am (in my mind at least) instantly transformed into a beautiful Daryl Hannah-esque mythical sea creature. I tentatively lower myself into the pool, hoping for the best… and am surprised to find that the minute the whole tail hits the water it becomes light, and I am floating… The fabric transforms wondrously into something resembling fish skin.
Meanwhile, Erin and Daisy come up for air, a giggling incandescence of red and blue and green. “When I was really small, I loved The Little Mermaid story,” Erin enthuses breathlessly between underwater forward-rolls. “It’s like you’re able to do something that you shouldn’t be able to do, because it’s just in the fantasy stories,” agrees Daisy.
Michelle teaches me the dolphin underwater stroke; undulating legs with arms in front above my head, or by my sides. “Mermaiding uses every part of your body, it’s not just flicking the tail,” she tells me. “It’s great for your stamina and coordination.”
The movement feels graceful, natural and very athletic. I undulate my feet, gliding deep underwater using the sinuous power of the tail. Mermaiding is more flowing than breast stroke, more streamlined than front crawl, taking the fluid aspects of butterfly and transforming them into a new underwater stroke. But it’s not for novice swimmers. To be a mermaid is certainly also to be an athlete.
Some other aspiring mermaids arrive; Anna, 48, from New Milton, and Holly May, 24, from the Purbecks. They pull on their tails; sea green and cobalt blue. “When you’re a mermaid, you do feel beautiful, but you’re also strong in mind and body,” says Holly May. “Mermaiding even inspired me to do a lifesaving course, and I’m now a qualified lifeguard,” adds Anna. “It makes me feel really empowered.”
I can see why female athletes like Anna are reclaiming mermaids for our times. This isn’t about passive beauty. As I get accustomed to my tail, I become aware of the core power of my body, the muscles in my legs and stomach and arms, as in the loud silence of underwater my movements blend smoothly with those of the tail. I feel like a mermaid…