Splashed ever more across popular culture, mermaids are now something very real for enchanted girls and women who can don tails and dive in. Some are better at it than others.
BERLIN — So, mermaiding. Women and girls dream of replacing the lower halves of their bodies with mermaid tails — fairytale fish scales. Legs bound together, feet in the monofin, swimming instead of walking. As soon as they plunge below the glittering turquoise surface of the water, the speakers blare the likes of Katy Perry — "You. Make. Me. Feel. Like I'm Living A. Teenage. Dream" — Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.
Their songs emerge from a blue cockle shell, an underwater loudspeaker that 34-year-old Sabine Schönborn — a mermaid of the Botticelli Venus type, flowers in her hair, bra made of mussel shells — has had installed on the floor of the pool in Berlin-Kreuzberg.
Wearing a bikini, I'm sitting at pool's edge staring at a piece of green, fish-scale-printed Spandex attached to a rubber section where the feet go. Schönborn, the instructor, recommends wearing socks. But I don't have any neoprene socks and don't like the idea of wet cotton ones in my graceful mermaid suit.
We — girls in grade school, a 42-year-old book restorer and I — are supposed to pull the Spandex over our bare wet legs, slowly, like panty hose, and then over our rear ends up to our tummies. As we do this, Lady Gaga sings Do. What. You. Want. With. My Bod-ay.
It smells like chlorine. The people watching are taking pictures. Moms, dads, guys are all standing around the edge of the pool looking at us. "And now," says Schönborn, "let's all beat our fins along the surface of the water. That draws admirers."
This is no time for second thoughts. So I keep that monofin going, sending water splashing everywhere, getting wetter and wetter. In the pool's aluminum-covered ceiling I can see blurry images of us mermaids. Pushing off with our hands from the pool rim, we plunge below water, colorful, graceful (in theory), our hair flowing.
The fascination with mermaids — aside from the fact that they are half fish, half human — is that they are bewitchingly beautiful but unable to engage in any sort of heavy eroticism. They are teases personified. Promises, promises: no fulfillment. Lonely seafarers dreamt of them when they were lost at sea, of their wet skin gleaming, topless, laughing then disappearing, swimming in wavy motions from sternum to the very tip of their fins, faces under water surrounded by flattering velvety hair. A mermaid is hyper-feminine. And a virgin. Untouched. Unavailable.
Whether in Hans Christian Andersen or Disney, the classic fairytale mermaid is a female who believes that with a prince at her side she can become someone else. "Flippin" your fins, you don't get too far," Ute Lemper sings as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. "I've got gadgets and gizmos aplenty. I've got whozits and whatzits galore. You want thingamabobs? I've got 20! But who cares? No big deal. I want more."
With her red hair, Ariel's future looks bright, but somehow she can't see it happening anywhere she actually is. She's always in Utopia. (Actually, she's a perfect match for the oft-described Generation Y.)
Propagated on screen
Here at the Berlin pool, there are children who watch Mako: Island of Secrets and H2O: Just Add Water, Australian series for young people featuring girls who turn into mermaids as soon as they touch water. These are world-saver kinds of girls in a perpetual fight against evil.
They are younger and more innocent than the Charmed witches. More stupid and more devoted than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fascination of TV mermaids lies in their looks. They're all a little like Brooke Shields back in Blue Lagoon days.
More than that, they have secrets and adventures and experience first love. For children, so-called "mermaiding" means finally being able to act out in the water what they otherwise try at home on the floor, both legs squeezed into one trouser leg. Finally they are real mermaids with water-proof eye shadow at the pool. And all to the songs of Miley Cyrus, the former TV girlie idol and pop princess Hannah Montana.
Sabine Schönborn is actually a nurse. When she gave swimming courses for kids that included underwater photos, she realized how much little girls love dressing up. She discovered mermaiding on the Internet. It's basically monofin diving with some water ballet thrown in. And there's synchronized swimming, hand in hand.
If you're serious about mermaiding, you buy the professional silicon fin. Tailor-made. They cost up to 5,000 euros. In her advanced course, Schönborn says, they'll soon be learning entire choreographies.
This whole mermaid thing is a very real trend. In Schorndorf near Stuttgart, a Miss Mermaid was elected last September. In Bad Wiessee, there is the Bavarian Mermaid Swimming School, while Schwäbisch Gmünd boasts the German Mermaid Swimming Club.
And they're not just for kids; they're for young girls and grown women. The book restorer says that she's always been fascinated by mermaids. When Schönborn swims, which she does apparently effortlessly in the heavy mermaid suit, the restorer says, "that looks so good," and "wow."
Not for everyone
It's not easy to deal with the mermaid tail. Your feet are stretched the whole time, and you're not supposed to bend your knees. I admit without shame to be having been more like a directionless buoy with wavy hair than a graceful mermaid. "Tense your body," Schönborn keeps saying. I focus on body tension, body tension — and note that the best one at swimming in this fashion is the youngest girl in the class. Intuitive.
I smile and thrash around in the water doing my best to be graceful about a half meter from the water surface. It's kind of fun. Under water there's music, but when you surface, the blood is still in your head and there's chlorine in your eyes. It's time now to beat the surface of the water with our fins. To say good-bye. Water splashes all over the place.
I'm stranded at pool's edge, lying there like a fish washed ashore. On my stomach. Breathe in, breathe out. Still lying down, I pull off the mermaid tail. I have never been so thankful for the two beautiful legs and two beautiful feet that carry me. Mermaid? Bah.
I like the lower half of me. Really.