The Aqualillies Synchronized Swimming Troupe Is Adorably Retro And Super Inspiring

In a backyard of a home nestled along the windy roads of Englewood, New Jersey, minutes from Manhattan, several members of the Aqualilies — an aquatic performance group — were counting steps. Their routine requires executing a choreographed series of moves that must all happen in perfect harmony. The pool itself was nondescript by most backyard standards, but for team captain Mary Jeanette Ramsey, it met the exact needs for what the group is most used to. “We can’t practice in a big pool, since almost all of our work happens in backyard pools like this.”

Somewhere between anachronism and nostalgia lies a razor-thin line. Anachronisms are easy to spot: a mismatch in past and present. But nostalgia takes more imagination on the part of the creator, and more familiarity for the witness. It takes 10 seconds of watching an Aqualilies performance to realize how cleverly they're navigating that line, and in a way that's successful and entertaining.

The Aqualilies are a multinational association of synchronized swimmers and dancers preserving an art-form that never quite made it into the mainstream scene. The closest synchronized swimming ever got to the spotlight was in Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” when director Busby Berkeley transformed Warner Brothers soundstages into spectacles of aqua-ballet, most famously starring Esther Williams. A champion swimmer-turned-actress, Williams earned the nickname Million Dollar Mermaid and was a household name in the 1940s.

Since that time, the aqua-ballet has faded into the past. While synchronized swimming is an Olympic sport, the less mechanized version of it is kept alive to some extent by the Aqualilies, who regularly perform at events in New York and Los Angeles, and as far away as Australia. To become an Aqualily takes around a decade of experience, but otherwise members come from “such a wide variety of backgrounds — we have dancers, we have actresses, we have engineers,” says Ramsey, who serves as the Los Angeles-based head of creative and casting (she is an art lawyer herself). Ramsey’s job brings her to New York frequently, especially in the warmer months when the Aqualilies perform often.

For experienced swimmers, Ramsey clarifies that the challenge isn’t only in the routine. “Every single pool is different,” she says. “You have to walk in and be ready to swim with a different group of people.” If a team member is injured in the last rehearsal, it can throw the entire routine off balance.

But Ramsey notes that the stress of rehearsing pays off, particularly in how audiences react. “A lot of the time, our audience is not expecting us to swim. They’re expecting us to pose poolside.” As you can see in the video below, they do a lot more than that.

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