Artistic swimming: from ancient Roman spectacle to modern Olympic sport

By Vicki Valosik

Most people think of synchronized swimming, which achieved Olympic status in 1984 and was renamed “artistic swimming” in 2017, as a new sport dating back to Esther williamsmid-century movies. But the aquatic precursors of artistic swimming are almost as old as the Olympics themselves.

The gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome are well known for their excessive and macabre displays, but their water shows were perhaps even more exaggerated. The rulers since Julius Caesar requisitioned lakes (or dug them) and flooded amphitheatres to stage reenactments of great naval battles – called naumachies – during which prisoners were forced to fight to the death or to fight each other. drown trying. Naumachies were such elaborate productions that they were only performed by order of the Emperor, but there is evidence that other types of aquatic performances – less macabre – took place in Roman times, including a ancient forerunner of modern artistic swimming.

Photo courtesy: André Olivier Lyra

The first century CE poet wrote a series of epigrams about the early Colosseum shows, in which he described a group of women playing the role of Nereids, or water nymphs, in an aquatic show in the flooded amphitheater. They dived, swam, and created elaborate formations and nautical shapes in the water, such as the outline or shape of a trident, an anchor, and a ship with billowing sails. Since the women portrayed water nymphs, they likely played nude, says Kathleen coleman, James Loeb, professor of classics at Harvard University, who has translated and written commentaries on Martial’s work. Yet, she says, “there was a stigma attached to showing off her body in public, so the women who performed in these games were probably of modest status, probably slaves.”

Regardless of their social rank, Martial was clearly impressed with the performance. “Who designed such incredible tricks in crystal clear waves? he asks towards the end of the epigram. He concludes that it must have been Thetis herself – the mythological leader of the nymphs – who taught “these feats” to her fellow Nereids.

Fast forward to the 19th century and re-enactments of naval battles appear again, this time at Sadler’s Wells Theater in England, which featured a 90-by-45-foot water tank for staging “water dramas.” The productions included a dramatization of the siege of Gibraltar in the late 18th century, with gunboats and floating batteries, and a play about the sea god Neptune, who drove his chariot pulled by seahorses through a cascading waterfall. at the back of the stage. During the 1800s, a number of circuses in Europe, such as the Nouveau Cirque in Paris and Blackpool Tower Circus in England, added aquatic numbers to their programs. These were not tent shows, but elegant permanent structures, sometimes referred to as “people’s palaces,” with central stages or rings that could be covered with rubber and filled with enough water to accommodate people. small boats or a group of swimmers.

In England, these Victorian swimmers were often part of a circuit of professional ‘swimmer’ who performed ‘ornamental’ swimming demonstrations, which involved demonstrations of water stunts, such as somersaults, sculling, water walking. water and swimming with the arms and legs tied. They waltzed and swam in glass basins in music halls and aquariums, and often opened their acts with underwater lounge tricks like smoking or eating while submerged. Although these acts were first performed by men, female swimmers were quickly favored by the public. Sports and recreation historian at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK), Dave’s day, who studies Victorian swimmers, points out that swimming, “touted as entertainment,” gave a small group of young working-class women the opportunity to earn a living, not only as artists, but also as artists. as teachers of swimming for other women. But as more and more women in England learned to swim, the novelty of their actions faded.

Photo courtesy: André Olivier Lyra

In the United States, however, the idea of ​​a female aquatic performer still seemed quite avant-garde when the Australian swimming champion Annette kellerman launched her vaudeville career in New York City in 1908. Regarded as the “Diving Venus” and often regarded as the mother of artistic swimming, Kellerman has woven together demonstrations of diving, swimming and dancing, which the New York Times called it “art in the making”. Kellerman’s career – which included leading roles in mermaid and aquatic-themed silent films and lecturing to female audiences on the importance of getting fit and wearing reasonable clothes – peaked when she, and a cast of 200 Sirens, replaced lead dancer Pavlova as the lead title at New York Racecourse in 1917.

As Kellerman promoted swimming as a way to preserve health and beauty, the American Red Cross, which was concerned about high drowning rates across the country, turned to aquatic competitions as an innovative way. increase public interest in swimming and water safety. These events, which included swimming, theater, music, lifesaving demonstrations or a combination of these, became increasingly popular during the 1920s. Aquatic pageantry clubs, ballet clubs aquatics and “rhythmic” swimming, as well as competitive diving and swimming clubs, began to appear in every pocket of America.

One of these groups, the Tarpon Club of the University of Chicago, under the direction of Catherine curtis, had begun to experiment with the use of music not only as a background, but as a means of synchronizing swimmers with a beat and with each other. In 1934, the club, under the name Modern Mermaids, performed with the accompaniment of a group of 12 musicians at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. This is where “synchronized swimming” got its name when announcer Norman Ross used the phrase to describe the performance of the 60 swimmers. By the end of the decade, Curtis had overseen the first competition between teams practicing this type of swimming and wrote his first rulebook, effectively transforming aquatic ballet into the sport of synchronized swimming.

While Curtis, a physical education teacher, worked to transform aquatic performance into competitive sport, the American impresario Billy Rose saw a golden opportunity to link the already popular Ziegfeld-style “girl show” with the growing interest in aquatic entertainment. In 1937 he produced the Great Lakes Aquacade on Cleveland’s waterfront, featuring – according to the souvenir program – “the glamor of mermaids diving and swimming in water ballets of breathtaking beauty and rhythm. the breath “.


Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The show was such a success that Rose produced two additional Aquacades in New York and San Francisco, where Esther Williams was her main mermaid. After the show, Williams became an international swimming sensation thanks to her lead roles in more than 20 MGM musicals, films featuring aquatic themes and elaborate aquatic ballets, many of which were choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Although competitive synchronized swimming – which gained momentum in the middle of the century – began to look less and less like Williams’ aquatic ballets, his Technicolor films helped spread interest in the sport.

Synchronized swimming made its debut as an Olympic sport at the 1984 Los Angeles Games – only for pairs and solos at the start, followed by the addition of the team event (and the removal of solos) in 1996. Although it has always been – and remains – a “women-only” sport at the Olympic level (despite a large male participation at non-Olympic levels), things are starting to change. In 2015, FINA, the international governing body of aquatics, has admitted “mixed pairs” (a duo consisting of a swimmer and a swimmer) to the international championships, and many see it as a first step towards Olympic inclusion for men. FINA was talked about again in 2017 when it abruptly decided to change the name of the sport from ‘synchronized swimming’ to ‘artistic swimming’, making the Tokyo 2021 Games the first Olympiad to feature the renowned event. .

Watching the artistic swimming events this year don’t be fooled if the athletes make you feel like it’s easy. It just means they are doing their job: according to FINA rules swimmers must maintain “an illusion of ease” during their routines. And it is most certainly an illusion! Artistic swimming is a grueling sport that requires tremendous strength, flexibility and endurance – all delivered with absolute precision upside down and in the depths.

Since his Olympic induction, artistic swimming has become increasingly “faster, higher and stronger” and bears little resemblance to its entertainment past. But whatever its roots and however it has evolved, the fact that artistic swimming remains a spectator favorite – it’s typically one of the first sporting events to sell out at the Summer Olympics – just shows that the the public has still not lost this old appetite for the aquatic spectacle.

Vicki Valosik is a writer and synchronized lifeguard. She is currently working on a book on the history of aquatic performance, with an emphasis on the development of synchronized swimming. Follow her on Instagram (@vickiswims) or find more of her articles at A version of this article was originally published by Smithsonian Magazine.