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Seniors In the Swim : Troupe Performs Water Ballet Like Extras in Esther Williams Movie

August 19, 1989|KATHRYN BOLD | Kathryn Bold is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Eileen Allen marches back and forth along the edge of the swimming pool, barking out orders on the loudspeaker. At age 74, she's a formidable drill sergeant in a black swimsuit.

A dozen or so women, swim caps pulled tightly over their gray hair and plastic clips on their noses, paddle around the pool in a perfect circle. They extend their arms in unison, roll over into a somersault and bob back up for air.

"Stop! Stop!" commands Allen, interrupting the exercise. She has spotted a stray swimmer floating out of formation.

"You're way ahead of everybody!" she admonishes.

"She can't hear you," comes the response from the pool.

This isn't the Army, it's the Aquadettes, and the wayward swan isn't the only one who's hard of hearing.

About 20 residents of Leisure World in Laguna Hills belong to the synchronized swimming troupe. Although most Aquadettes are in their late 70s, they don sequin-trimmed bathing suits and plunge into the pool to perform their water ballet like extras in an Esther Williams movie.

Two of their younger members, Barbara Pedersen and Esther Hutchings--ages 62 and 60, respectively--recently competed in the World Masters Games in Sweden, an international Olympics-style competition held once every four years for people over 25. Both took second-place medals for synchronized swimming in their age group.

While the Aquadettes perform less strenuous routines than seen in competitions, they don't practice just for kicks.

On a recent Friday, they were hard at work fixing what they call "trouble spots" for their annual Aqua Follies held at the Leisure World pool Aug. 24 through 27. All four of the performances, with 350 seats each, sold out weeks ago.

"People get excited that all these little old ladies in tennis shoes can do this," Pedersen says. "We're pretty good. We get out there, get our legs up, and it's all set to music and very pretty."

During practice, they work like professional performers. As head coach, Allen has the lonely job of whipping everyone into shape.

"You're very unpopular," she says of herself. "But this time of year we don't worry about hurt feelings."

Indeed, if one or more of the Aquadettes floats out of line or misses a cue, good-natured squabbling breaks out among the women over who should do what when.

"One person went before someone else did and nobody knows who's right," says Hutchings, watching the women bicker over the kick-line sequence for the "Chorus Line" number.

When they're in sync, the Aquadettes look like an aquatic version of the June Taylor Dancers. At the same instant, a dozen legs shoot up out of the water, feet flexed, toes pointed.

The Aquadettes range in age from 55 to 87. Three of them are deaf and one is recovering from a heart attack and two strokes.

"Most women their age are sitting in front of a TV with a cat in their lap," Hutchings says.

Instead, the Aquadettes engage in what can be a demanding sport at any age.

"We're among the few groups in the world who do this," Hutchings says. "It's a hard thing to do. You have to keep from sinking, keep control, get that leg up out of the water at a perfect right angle. It takes stamina."

Above the water, arms and legs move gracefully. When submerged, the limbs churn like eggbeaters to keep the body afloat.

Pedersen and Hutchings found synchronized swimming at the competitive level to be even more intense. At the World Games earlier this month, they had to perform more complicated stunts. They would carry out two or three movements instead of one while holding their breath under water.

"When we got done with our duet, our tongues hung down to our toenails," Pedersen says.

They began training seriously in November with the Meraquas of Irvine, a group of synchronized swimmers who train for competition. Of the 60 or so Meraquas, Pedersen and Hutchings are the only two in the masters category. The others range in age from 8 to 16.

In Sweden they competed against 119 swimmers from all over the world.

In addition to receiving second-place medals for figures (six individual stunts) they won a fourth-place prize for their duet.

Pedersen received a fifth-place medal for her solo in the 60- to 69-year-old age group. Hutchings received fourth place for her solo in the 40- to 59-year-old age group (competitors were grouped according to their ages as of Dec. 31, 1988).

"I've never been athletic," says Hutchings, "and for the first time I can do something reasonably well.

"It's a challenge, and if you don't have a challenge when you're 60, you go to pot."

Pedersen, too, has found synchronized swimming to be the perfect sport.

"It gives us the fun of competition without the stress on our bodies," she says. "Plus, I'm a bit of a ham."

Aquadettes perform a more relaxed ballet. They're in it for the camaraderie, not the competition. They form lasting friendships. Besides, swimming lowers their blood pressure.

"I've always been a swimmer and I was a competitive diver. It's good exercise. It keeps you limber," says Helen Balch, 71, who will perform in her 14th Aquadette show.

Aquadettes must be residents of the Leisure World retirement community. That's the only requirement for joining the troupe.

"Anyone can do it," Pedersen says. "We have women who have learned to swim at Leisure World, and we've had former Olympic swimmers."

They have been performing since 1965, almost as long as Leisure World has been in existence. At their upcoming show, they will pay tribute to the community's 25th birthday by assembling an eight-foot birthday cake, complete with lit candles.

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