Of fishes and fins: Immersive mermaid classes offered

GRACEFUL—L.A. Mermaid School owner Virginia Hankins, right, practices mermaid poses with a student. Part of mermaid training is rehearsing poses above and under the water. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers

GRACEFUL—L.A. Mermaid School owner Virginia Hankins, right, practices mermaid poses with a student. Part of mermaid training is rehearsing poses above and under the water. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers

Rainbow scales glimmer beneath the crystalline waters before a mermaid tail emerges from the depths, balances upright for a moment and then submerges beneath the salty surface.

It’s not a sailor’s dream—it’s the Los Angeles Mermaid School.

Virginia Hankins, a professionally certified diver and Red Cross lifeguard instructor, sat on the edge of a saltwater backyard pool in Camarillo on a sunny Sunday afternoon giving instructions to two teen swimmers, each wearing a multicolored mermaid tail that secures their feet into a single fin.

Hankins coaches the girls on all the mermaid essentials, including how to propel themselves through the water with a dolphin-like undulation, how to perform “fin stands,” how to blow heart-shaped bubbles underwater and how to pose poolside with all the elegance of Ariel from “The Little Mermaid.”

“It’s pretty epic,” the Simi Valley resident said. “When you’re underwater, you feel like you’re a superhero and you feel like you can do anything. It just feels like it’s limitless. All of a sudden, nothing exists and yet everything does at once. That feels really good.”

L.A. Mermaid School was born from Hankins’ work as a professional mermaid. In 2011, she was contacted by photographer Brenda Stumpf for an underwater mermaid shoot because of her background in diving. Hankins created her first mermaid tails by hand, pouring the silicone into molds.

As she began to work as a mermaid for corporate events and private parties through her company, Sheroes Entertainment, people would often ask her how to become a mermaid themselves.

So she formed L.A. Mermaid School under the Sheroes umbrella and began offering mermaid lessons to children ages 8 and up.

Sheroes Enter tainment also offers mermaid pool parties where a mermaid performs in a film-quality fin for children ages 4 and up. They also perform at bachelorette parties.

Hankins said the mermaid trope is an “intrinsically silly” way to promote water safety.

“We want kids to see that swimming is fun,” she said. “We’re serious about safety, but we want people to have fun. The unfortunate reality is that drowning is a top killer of kids. That’s important to me. That’s why I’m a lifeguard. That’s why I’m a water safety instructor. With the mermaids, we can get the kids to have fun in the pool and listen. All of our mermaids are certified lifeguards. Kids learn to have fun in the pool, and they get interested enough to educate themselves, which means they’re going to be safer long term.”

Mermaid school also builds ecological interest.

“The more someone loves and appreciates the ocean, the more they’re going to care about it and the more they’re going to prevent pollution from going into it,” she said. “That helps all of us, as well as the ocean creatures.”

Hankins has a team of 10 professional mermaids that serve the greater Los Angeles area.

She and her cadre of mermaids perform at public events, like the Ocean Institute Maritime Festival in Dana Point each September, where they use their undersea personas to teach children and families the physics of buoyancy. They have mermaids from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, so each child can see a mermaid with whom they identify.

Hankins’ mermaid team also takes part in March Mermaid Madness at Ventura Harbor Days. Recently, they attended the opening of a community pool in the City of Paramount where their newest mermaid, who is from Colombia and fully bilingual, started speaking to children in their native Spanish.

“I’ve never seen them light up like that. When she talked to them, all of a sudden they saw themselves in her,” Hankins said.

The mystery and mystique of mermaids is an antidote for cynicism, and it provides a foothold for wonder, she said.

That wonder is stoked by experiences like free dive lessons she teaches in the open ocean.

“When you think you know everything, your life gets really small,” she said.

Performing as a mermaid taps into the power of women, Hankins said, much as swimmer-turned-actress Esther Williams did when she showcased her aquatic athleticism in a series of splashy big-screen films in the 1940s and ’50s.

“That femininity within mermaids is really special. I think it’s important to recognize the strength and the beauty and the grace that women have as part of being comfortable in our skin.”

The professional mermaids perform in film-quality prosthetics, which are also available to rent, along with mermaid tops.

While Hankins manufactured her first fin herself, she now commissions the fins from a female artist in Florida. Hankins tries to source all of the materials for their high-level prosthetics from female artists in the U.S.

“That way it’s women supporting women and embracing both business and femininity,” she said.

Hankins also provides underwater modeling lessons for specialized photography shoots.

The easiest way to become a mermaid, Hankins said, is to “try a fin for a spin” and start taking lessons. Professional mermaids must be age 18 and up.

Hankins, who grew up in Moorpark, said the best part of her job is bringing other people joy.

“I love helping people have a happy day.”

This story was originally published July 1 in the Acorn Newspapers’ lifestyle magazine at BeyondTheAcorn.com.

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