Esther Williams is often mistakenly credited with introducing synchronized swimming to the world through her aquamusicals—aquatic-themed movies produced by MGM in the 1940s and 1950s featuring elaborate pool scenes and water ballets. Though Williams did a lot to popularize synchronized swimming while it was still a developing sport, she did not invent it, nor was she the first to present it to the public on a major scale.
While the question of who “invented” synchronized swimming is up for debate, credit for first presenting it to a mass audience squarely lies with a woman from Chicago named Katherine (Kay) Curtis. In 1934, Curtis wrote and produced what became a popular show at the Chicago World’s Fair featuring 24 women—called the Modern Mermaids—who performed coordinated swimming movements and floating patterns on the surface of the water. Though an early form of synchronized swimming was already in development by that time, it was at one of the Modern Mermaids shows that it was first called by that name.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, Curtis and a handful of other physical education instructors across the United States had been experimenting with group coordination in the water, as well as with swimming movements that were more about gracefulness than speed or locomotion. Though it was called by a variety of different names at the time—rhythmic swimming, scientific swimming, stunt swimming, water ballet (and “ornamental swimming” in England since at least the mid-1800s)—these types of aquatic expression quickly spread in popularity, with clubs and teams popping up all over the United States. Some groups, such as the University of Chicago Tarpon Club, under Curtis’ direction, added music. At first, they used it just for background accompaniment, but soon they began to see music, particularly waltzes, as a way to synchronize swimmers with a beat and with one another.
The growth in group swimming was reflective of a larger trend: Americans, in general, were swimming more than they ever had before. This was due to several factors, including the proliferation of municipal pools, increases in leisure time, the development of physical education in schools, changes in women’s swim attire, positive media attention surrounding champion swimmers such as Gertrude Ederle, and national learn-to-swim campaigns. Additionally, many Americans had been exposed to the idea of swimming as entertainment, first through vaudeville aquatic acts like those of Annette Kellerman, the “Diving Venus”, and later through water pageants—theatrical productions with amphibious plot lines staged in swimming pools and on their surrounding decks. First popularized as part of the American Red Cross’ life-saving programs, these water pageants often carried messages about water safety and the value of swimming for health and recreation. Starting in the 1920s, water pageants, as well as performances of rhythmic swimming by clubs like Curtis’ Tarpons, became regular attractions at school and municipal pools, summer camps, and in lakes and rivers in all corners of the continental United States. These shows were typically modest productions with audiences comprised of local community members.
That changed, however, when Curtis organized her swimming students, current and former, to perform at the 1934 World’s Fair—“Century of Progress”—for the summer season. Curtis later wrote, “Each of the three performances a day was attended by a capacity audience of 10,000 people of all ages.”
The show took place at the Lagoon Theater (See link here) which was built right onto the edge of Lake Michigan and featured a large stage surrounded on three sides by water. At once performance, radio host and show announcer Norman Ross described the Modern Mermaids act as “synchronized swimming.” The name stuck, and even though this type of swimming continued to be referred to periodically as “water ballet” and “rhythmic swimming” into the following decades, the more it developed as a sport, the more the name synchronized swimming was used. Although the routine the Modern Mermaids performed would be considered extremely simple compared to the highly complex and athletic routines of today’s synchronized swimming, it was unlike anything that most of the audience had seen at the time.
“The popular appeal was so strong that many of the spectators were repeaters returning to see one of the mermaid’s shows at every visit to the Fair,” wrote Curtis. “Thus, a new and intense interest, appreciation, and understanding of this new field in water activities was created and developed in an immense lay audience.” In addition to introducing synchronized swimming to its largest-yet audience, by the end of the decade Curtis had overseen the first synchronized swimming competition and written its first rulebook.
While Curtis and others were busy moving aquatic performance in the direction of competitive sport, American impresario Billy Rose saw a golden opportunity to link the already popular Ziegfeld-esque “girl show” with the rising interest in aquatic entertainment. In 1937, he produced the Great Lakes Aquacade on the Cleveland waterfront, a variety show featuring more than 100 swimmers, including Olympic backstroke champion Eleanor Holm and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller. The show was such a success—regularly filling the 7,000-seat auditorium to capacity—that Rose produced an even larger and more spectacular aquacade for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, featuring 200-300 swimmers (not to mention all the musicians, actors, and other cast). This was followed by a similar production at the 1940 Golden Gate Exposition, for which Rose plucked swimming champion Esther Williams from obscurity to be his star mermaid, thus launching her career in aquatic entertainment.
Thanks to the popularity of the Modern Mermaids and Rose’s Aquacades, along with the profuse number of small-scale water pageants and rhythmic swimming shows taking place across North America, by the time Esther Williams starred in her first aquamusical in 1944, much of the American population had already either seen or at least heard about synchronized swimming—whether they knew it by that name or not. Rather than introducing her viewers to a “new” type of swimming, Williams glamorized the water, which served to further propel interest in this already developing sport.
Article © Vicki Valosik
Modern Mermaids – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QN_JZ3RXahU