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Friends Pool Themselves Together : These Leisure World swimmers have to work together to make 'Aquadette Follies' a success. But they can also count on each other when they're on dry land. 'We say it's a club, but it's really more like a sorority,' says their coach.

August 23, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA HILLS — It had been a scorcher of a day, but now beneath a three-quarter moon, a breeze was making it downright chilly at poolside, even for those who weren't dripping water and tired from exertion.

Since last year, some official had decided that the lights previously strung over Leisure World Pool No. 1 were illegal, and this night there were glitches with the new lighting setup, leaving the swimmers in darkness some of the time. The underwater speaker similarly was cutting in and out.

So the Aquadettes seemed to be enacting a mysterious nocturnal water rite rather than a glitzy synchronized swimming performance. Yet it is this latter prospect they will be presenting in public with "Aquadette Follies 1994" this Thursday through Sunday night, as they have done for the past 29 years, drawing audiences of up to 1,300 over the four days.

Folks who have seen the old Esther Williams movies or watched the synchronized swimming events in the Olympics have an idea of what the Aquadettes are up to. It's like ballet, except you get water up your nose. The swimmers form shapes and curls of motion in the water; they invert themselves, with glistening gams kicking up above the surface in unison; they, with any luck at all, perform in precise yet fluid motion, as each member becomes part of a bigger picture framed by time and grid location, all set to music such as "The Third Man" theme and a Jimmy Durante rendition of "As Time Goes By."

The 23 Aquadettes are aged 60 to 82. Some are what Aquadettes president Bev Margolis refers to as "bionic women," explaining, "There's this one girl with artificial knees, artificial hips and an artificial arm, and she's out there swimming. There are people who have had heart surgeries, cancer surgeries, mastectomies, back operations, shoulder operations, arms that don't work. The average age is about 74."

And according to fellow Aquadette Bette Ring, "Their attitudes are all tremendous. There's not one of the 23 you could spend an afternoon with one-to-one where they would give you anything to be depressed over. They're all up ."

Professional synchronized swimmers half-a-century younger might rehearse one routine six hours a day for a year. The Aquadettes learned 10 routines this year, rehearsing for a couple of hours two or three times a week. And Margolis noted, "When you get older you don't process things as fast."

On this night a week before their debut, it wasn't all serendipity. Swimmers would sometimes surface yards from the mark, or once seemed to approximate a human log jam. But most of the time it worked, and there was a true, and touching, grace to their water dance.

More than in their sodden ballet, that grace was apparent in their faces, in the looks of pleasure and pride that appeared when the swimmers played off one another, helping each other.

"We say it's a club, but it's really more like a sorority," said Aquadettes coach Eileen Allen. "It's a wonderful camaraderie. I've belonged to other clubs and it has left me cold, because there is this clique here and that there. We're kind of cliquey, but it's a big clique."

Said Ring: "They are a very caring, close group. They are the first ones to your side if you're in trouble or your husband is ill. If anything happens, one of the Aquadettes will be right there."

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Ring, Allen and Margolis agree that the members' bond runs deeper because they have to depend on each other in a challenging situation.

The three are among the seven choreographers of this year's show. It's a job they describe as both the most difficult and the most fun, seeing their visions brought to life.

"We did have to make a rule, though," Allen said. "We've stopped having it where you can choreograph a number and then swim in it. It just didn't work because you'd be busy looking around at everybody and making sure they were doing the right thing and as a result you'd do the wrong thing. One year my son-in-law and daughter were in the audience and he looked at my daughter and said, 'Well, either those seven ladies are wrong or mom is.' "

Allen, who turns 80 in November, has coached the Aquadettes for 15 years. Prospective members have to be juried in and meet a set of qualifications, including being able to do a length of the pool each in the breast stroke, crawl, backstroke and sidestroke on both sides. Allen says she's a tough coach.

"You have to be. Nobody's meant to love the coach. When I was in college, the coach had a bamboo pole to hit you with. I don't go that far," she said. Allen choreographed the the biggest number, the show-closing medley from "Camelot," which, with 22 swimmers involved, is a true exercise in traffic control.

Each swimmer has to know where she is in a routine by keeping track of the musical beats and measures.

Margolis joked: "One of the qualifications of being an Aquadette is you have to be able to count from one to eight. If you can do that, you're in."

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