Immortal vampires who devour and live on blood.
Werewolves who shapeshift into wolves on a full-moon night.
Centaurs with their hoofed lower halves galloping through fields.
There’s a certain appeal to mythical creatures, seamlessly blending the human with the fantastical, magical and decidedly non-human, that captures our imagination and taunts us to venture beyond our normal capabilities. Merfolk, one example of such mythical beings, are found in a number of folk legends, historic literature and of course, modern culture. The form-shifting selkies of Scotland, the strangely alluring Sirens of Homer, and the distinctive saltwater and freshwater mermaids of the Australian Aboriginal people, are all examples of stories that have existed since ages before Disney’s Ariel. People believed or disbelieved in the existence of such beings, and loved or feared them depending on the account of the folktale passed down to them.
But there was something that Ariel– with her flaming-red hair and Disney princess-status — caused that none of her previous iterations could: she made people move beyond attempts to prove or disprove her existence, and think about pushing the limits of their own.
Ariel inspired people to become like her.
This summer, I had the chance to step into this creative world, where people choose to think beyond the norm, imagine being more than what they are, and bring the fictional identities they’ve dreamt of to life.
For just an hour, I was a mermaid on a cruise ship.
The Genting Dream set off from the shores of Marina Bay, into the wide, seemingly endless expanse of water surrounding the island country of Singapore. On board the massive vessel was I, along with my family and a thousand other guests– yet gazing at the ripples of the on the ocean surface from the balcony of our room, it felt as if I could be the only one there. Among the many other activities and attractions on board, I took part in a rather matter-of-factly titled ‘Mermaid Group Class.’ If your reaction is anything like mine, you’re most likely intrigued, but left mystified about what a ‘become a mermaid’ class would teach you.
Would you play dress-up?
Well, there’s more to it than that.
Would you put on VR glasses and navigate through a stormy, virtual ocean towards your beloved Prince on land?
As creative as that game concept sounds, no, that’s definitely not what you do.
Would you swim with your legs tied together?
Close, but it’s way nicer than tying your legs.
Becoming a mermaid was not an easy task, but I was up for the challenge. With the guidance of the instructors, Mermaid Kat and Krissy, I set off my transformation.
Step 1: SWIMMING
The first part of the class was a swim-test; to be a mermaid, you must be an adept swimmer. This is quite obvious if you think about it- if you’re going to be underwater, you must have the skills required to do so. While knowledge of freestyle is generally useful, if you want to navigate the water like a true mermaid, you should at least be capable of doing the breaststroke. Additionally, if you’re proficient in the butterfly stroke then you’re in luck: the type of movement you’ll use to move forward as a mermaid is quite similar to the ‘dolphin’ kick used in the butterfly stroke.
Don’t worry. You don’t need to be an expert swimmer, just fairly competent.
Step 2: MOVEMENT
We began the class with a simple question, “What is a mermaid?”
We usually think of a mermaid as being ‘half-human and half-fish.’ You’ll find, however, that the aquatic half of a mermaid’s body doesn’t move like a fish at all; where a fish flexes its body side to side, a mermaid must use her powerful tail in an up and down motion– like a dolphin! A mermaid, with lungs instead of gills to breathe, would have to rise above the water surface to breathe– again like a dolphin. In more ways than one, a mermaid is, in fact, half-human and half-dolphin.
Thus, bereft of complex leg movements, we used the characteristic up-and-down body movements of a dolphin while swimming as a mermaid.
Step 3: LOOKING AND BEING A MERMAID
In the lesson, we adorned a realistic and safely designed mermaid tail. My red silicone monofin had foot straps to fasten my feet into and covered the entire lower half of my body, up to my waist.
Although I had been apprehensive, the tail was extremely comfortable to wear and didn’t squeeze around my legs much. At first, I felt burdened by its additional weight and found it tricky to manoeuver it around properly. Unlike with my legs, I couldn’t accurately gauge the amount of space my fin occupied since it extended the length of my body.
Following Mermaid Krissy’s directions and imitating her movements, I gradually adjusted to swimming with the tail on. Similar to how mermaids are creatures best-suited to the water, the tails too work better in water! I flexed my upper and lower body up-and-down, sometimes with my hands outstretched and other times with them at my sides, to push myself forward. I also tried swimming sideways, and on my back, although I wasn’t very successful at the latter! Perhaps the hardest and the most fun move was the side-roll. Once I managed to do one roll, I was so excited I did a lap of the longer end of the pool so I could do two, one after the other. As someone who has never even tried regular turns in the water, twirling twice in quick succession with a mermaid tail attached to my body was an incredible feeling.
Being a mermaid doesn’t always have to involve serious swimming either– I also learnt to lift and thump my tail on the water surface. Lifting a heavy tail, soaked with water, is harder than it may sound, but splashing the unfortunate person in front of me made it all worthwhile. Thankfully, I avoided smacking someone in the face! That’s not all– I also did a handstand in the water along with my fellow merpeople. Again, never having tried an underwater handstand, doing one with my magnificent mermaid tail rising over the water surface felt wonderful (apart from the fair bit of water that entered my nose in the process).
Be it swimming with the monofin or posing for photographs with my tail proudly up in the air, every moment of the class was enjoyable and a great learning experience.
Step 4: Why?
Our main instructor for the class was Mermaid Kat, a ‘professional mermaid’ who runs her own International Mermaid School and Shop, helping people transform into mermaids. Accompanying Kat was Mermaid Krissy, the head of Germany’s Mermaid School.
Kat, as a kid, was captivated by the Little Mermaid. Longing to be like her, she used to sit for long hours with her legs crossed together, hoping they would somehow glue together and metamorphosize into the scaley, vibrant tail of a mermaid. As she grew up, she pursued more practical things– like international modelling, scuba-diving, freediving– but it wasn’t enough to satisfy her childhood dream. Krissy had a similar story. Where most of us would remind ourselves of our human limitations, Kat developed her own mermaid tail and owned the persona of a ‘real mermaid’. She now works as not just a mermaid, but also a mermaid trainer, underwater stunt woman, and an environmentalist who has swum with hammerhead sharks and tiger sharks to raise awareness about saving the oceans. I think there’s a lesson here somewhere, but I won’t spell it out for you.
(Instead, I offer you the convoluted words of a very wise man: “If you are a fish farmer, living on a farm with a fishy family who feeds you fish everyday because they think you love it, and they want you to marry a fishy friend and live forever on the farm, but you actually hate it and you wish that you are an asexual vegan gymnast that travels with a circus- then you are not going to be happy until you live your truth.”)
Each of the three participants in the class, including me, had different reasons to be there. Even if my own reason wasn’t as deep and important to me as that of Kat and Krissy, l wanted to do this because it was fun, creative, and simply amazingly cool to adopt a realistically ‘impossible’ identity. And it certainly lived up to, and went beyond, all of my expectations!
~Ananya Grover, Amity International School, Noida
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