Whatevahs / Alice P.S. Roberts enforces one important requirement to perform with Mermaids Hawai’i, her synchronized swimming group: ‘I’ll take anyone who’s not going to drown.’ But just in case, two of her performers are certified lifeguards.
Roberts, 62, is the director, producer and co-founder of the group, which has performed at hotels, retirement homes, Sea Life Park, private homes and condos for 36 years. Her troupe is featured in two shows Saturday for Art Spree at the Contemporary Museum Honolulu in Makiki.
Her 17-member group ranges in age from 10 to 78. The eldest performer is Reta Maag, of Saint Louis Heights. ‘It’s marvelous exercise,’ says Haag, 78. ‘And I get to meet lots of different kinds of people.’
There’s only one ‘merman’ who just joined the group a few months ago. Alan Lemieux is a surgical sales representative from Nu’uanu. Everyone’s adjusting to having a man in the pool, as they found when he first tried a maneuver with two women connected to each side of his body. ‘We opened our legs and arms together, and I sent the women flying, some of them went underwater, because they’re not used to having a man’s strength. It was like tidal waves,’ Lemieux says.
‘Nobody gets paid and nobody pays to swim,’ Roberts says of her strictly volunteer organization. Her swimmers come from a variety of professional backgrounds. They include a UH-Manoa science education professor, a mammographer from Kaiser Medical Center, a couple of TV actors, teachers and a dolphin trainer.
A biologist by training with a master’s degree from UH-Manoa in botany, Roberts says ‘I have an artistic side, but I use it all for Mermaids Hawai’i. I do costuming and most of the choreography and try to make everybody to look good.’ She has been performing in synchronized swimming groups since high school in Pennsylvania and helped teach classes when she was in college.
Three years ago, she allowed a 32-year-old woman to join the group, even though she could barely swim. Roberts told her she’d allow her to join if she could swim one lap of the pool, with Roberts right by her side. ‘She got in the pool, and she did this horrendous breast stroke. And she swam about three-quarters the length of the pool without a breath which just freaked me out.’ Roberts taught her simple routines in the shallow end, and slowly had her move into deeper water, until she had the confidence to handle any situation in the pool.
Most of her routines are staged to Hawaiian music. The group practices every Sunday afternoon at the Windward YMCA in Kailua.
One room in Roberts’ Punchbowl condo is filled with sequined costumes, colored bathing suits, leotards and lei. She carefully de-chlorinates the costumes at home after every performance, using baking soda to preserve them.
In 1969, the original Hawai’i group was formed by swimmers who gathered to glamorize the International Diving School’s scuba diving demonstrations at the Hawaii Kai recreation center. The group was then hired by businessman (and future Hawai’i congressman) Cec Heftel for underwater ballet at Waikiki’s Rodeway Inn, which is the Holiday Inn Waikiki today. Roberts co-founded the current group, Mermaids Hawai’i, in 1971.
She spent 18 years teaching marine science and driving a school bus for Maryknoll High School. She has had both hips replaced in the last three years forcing her to quit her job at Maryknoll. But after having two metal and plastic hips surgically implanted, she’s ‘swimming better than ever.’ And she jokes, ‘Hopefully, they’re not rusting!’
ArtSpree 2007, The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Dr., Sat. 7/14, 10am-4pm; Mermaids Hawaii perform at10:40am and 2:35pm, free, [tcmhi.org], 526-1322