There is blood in the water at the Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center in Manassas, Va. Angela Murray Pavlovsky, 40, emerges from the pool with knuckles raw and red, having scraped them during a punishing 50-meter sprint with a 10-pound weight.
“That was hard as hay-el,” Pavlovsky drawls. A teacher from Tennessee, she’s the first to wash out of the Circus Siren Pod auditions this gray February morning. The competition to join the Washington, D.C.-based underwater performing troupe, she says, is stiffer than she expected. “A lot of these girls are already professional mermaids,” Pavlovsky observes.
Circus Siren Pod, established in 2016, bills itself as “the Mid-Atlantic’s Most Popular Water Artists.” The group is holding auditions for new members as part of the first MerMagic Con, a festival that’s attracted some 500 mermaid enthusiasts to morthern Virginia for a weekend of workshops, lectures and fun, including a Merlympics. The event was organized by Circus Siren Pod and a D.C. mermaid group called Metro Merfolk that began about a year ago and has nearly 400 members.
Jenna Klepper, 34, and Karen Tickner, 39, drove up from Florida in a minivan stuffed to the gills with costumes and tails for MerMagic Con and for the Circus Siren Pod auditions. Sitting poolside in a starfish bikini top, Tickner says she’s seen a marked uptick in mermaiding over the past few years — a trend that’s only going to intensify when the planned remakes of “Splash” and “The Little Mermaid” come out. Like many of her fellow pros, Tickner offers a range of services, including event appearances and mermaid-swim classes for children and adults. “Lately, it’s been more adults than children,” she says. The moment grown-ups slip on one of her loaner swimsuit-fabric tails (which you can buy online for as little as $60) they start playing in the pool like kids, “doing somersaults and just generally showing off,” she says.
So, why bother auditioning for Circus Siren Pod when you’re already running your own mermaid businesses, I ask the fish-tailed crowd.
“The tank!” several women reply.
That would be a nine-foot-tall acrylic cylinder, which Circus Siren owner Morgana Alba tows to festivals, Renaissance fairs and other events. These underwater performers are drawn to the fish tank like sharks to chum — why else would they be vying for a job that pays $100 to $500 per gig, especially when you consider the required fancy silicone tail runs upward of $3,000?
Another explanation is that mermaiding is a calling more than a job. Tickner, for instance, heard the siren’s song while on vacation in Hawaii. Her 15-year marriage had just ended, and on a whim she signed up to swim with wild dolphins in a mermaid tail. Already a free-diving instructor with a four-minute breath hold, Tickner felt more comfortable in the water in a mermaid tail than she ever had while swimming “in legs,” she says. “I went to find myself, and I found out I’m a mermaid.”