The legacy of America’s Mermaid Esther Williams lives on with the Aqualillies.
Statuesque and graceful are words used to describe many stars of the silver screen, but only one had an uncanny ease in water: Esther Williams. Known as America’s Mermaid, she popularized synchronized swimming through film in the 1940s and ’50s with aqua-musicals at MGM, such as Bathing Beauty, Dangerous When Wet, Neptune’s Daughter and Million Dollar Mermaid. They were full of gorgeous spectacles and surreal performances, and Esther Williams was revered for her synchronized swimming that captivated audiences. She stopped acting in the 1960s to become a businesswoman, but her magnificent talent has not been forgotten. The Aqualillies, a group of synchronized swimmers, are keeping Esther Williams’ legacy alive.
Puttin’ on a Show
Just as Esther Williams hailed from California, the Aqualillies began in Hollywood in 2008. Since then, the group has grown internationally with teams of Lillies in Florida, New York, Canada, Australia and Europe, while amassing an impressive body of work. In 2011, they performed at Justin Timberlake’s L.A. home for his birthday party. And you may have seen them in the Bieber/Minaj video for “Beauty and a Beat,” on an episode of Glee, in Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!
While the Aqualillies have flourished, their brand remains consistent around the world, “every team has a little bit of a different culture…given the cities where they are from,” Lilly Mary said. “Our New York team is really focused, really hardworking; very serious about everything. Our Miami team is very fun, always laughing. Our brand is consistent, but I do really love that each team is just a little different, which is fun for us,” she said.
After Esther Williams left the pool, synchronized swimming became better known as an Olympic sport than entertainment. Through the Aqualillies, Mary has seen a resurgence in interest but does not think the desire for this type of entertainment really ever went away. “I think those beautiful, full-scale musicals and ensembles of dancers, people always really liked that aesthetic. After the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was sort of this black hole — where there wasn’t an avenue for this.”
With “So You Think You Can Dance” and similar programs, “I see it coming back in ways more than just Aqualillies. I think our culture has an interest in not only seeing things that are beautiful but also seeing talent, and Aqualillies is so popular because what the girls do is athletically challenging and unique. I think people really respond to that.”
Mary began as a Lilly in 2009, becoming the team captain and eventually executive producer. She still performs, but her primary role is quality control, training performers and casting them for events.
When hiring Lillies, Mary looks for a “high level of technical ability in either synchronized swimming or dance. We have both synchronized swimmers and dancers in our show, so it’s a multilevel experience. We have people in the pool, and there are people dancing next to you, so basically everyone really has to be at the top of their training and technical game because we operate so quickly with the choreography. There’s no time to teach the basics, so everybody has to be really up for it.”
Typically, the team has a couple of days in rehearsal and then are expected to execute the choreography perfectly. Mistakes do occur, though. “It’s a live show, so stuff happens. We’ll have people flip or have a little wardrobe malfunction. I mean, we’ve had everything happen to us,” Mary said. “Honestly, our performers just move on from that moment and the best thing to do is to play it off as part of the show.”
Bety, the New York water captain who has also performed in Los Angeles and Miami, goes with “strong and wrong.” She said, “I’ll do something 100% full-out so that it makes it look like I’m the only one doing the right thing. It’s a matter of just committing to each movement so that it’s just strong and wrong — just do it all the way.”
Lillies obviously need to be comfortable dancing in swimsuits in front of an audience, “because you know that’s not for everybody,” Mary said, and charisma is essential. “When we are watching people audition, one of the things I look for is, if someone messes up, do they laugh and play it off? Do they smile? Do they move on from the moment? We are really looking for performers. Those people who walk out on stage and you just can’t take your eyes off them because they have some kind of charisma that’s beyond even the choreography they are doing.”
And in this team-focused environment, it’s important to Mary that the women support and want the best for each other. As Bety pointed out: “Everyone is so wonderful. All the girls, all the swimmers and all the dancers: there’s no egos involved. You get some of that when you perform onstage, but with Aqualillies everyone is just there to have a good time and work together and help each other grow.”
Performing for Esther Williams
In 2010 the Aqualillies performed live for Esther Williams at the TCM Classic Film Festival. “[It] was just so special for me as a synchronized swimmer,” Mary said. “She was there during our rehearsal, sitting poolside, not wanting to miss a second. You could tell it was really something special to her and, in turn, for me and the other performers. I mean, having Esther Williams watch us — what could be more of an honor?”
Another incredible opportunity arose when the Coen Brothers cast the Aqualillies in Hail, Caesar! for an Esther Williams–style aqua-musical performance. “We got to shoot at stage 30, which is where Esther shot all her big movie musicals. Just being in that pool was so incredibly special,” Mary said. “And then, to be able to shoot with 32 performers. I mean, rarely do shoots have a budget for 32 people. I feel like that was really the first time we got to explore that sort of 1940s water-musical-type choreography where the smallest movements make such a difference when 32 people are doing it.”
Esther Williams passed away in 2013, and the Aqualillies performed at her memorial service. They integrated clips from all her movies, having them play in the background on a big screen. It was unique “because it felt like we were swimming together,” Mary said, adding that the experience made her tear up because “I really saw we were continuing what she started.”
Every year on Esther Williams’ birthday, the Aqualillies put on a tribute show in Los Angeles. It always brings out a very special guest: Edward Bell, Esther Williams’ husband. Proceeds from the show are given to a charitable cause, but “mostly it’s just about having something every year where we celebrate not only Esther Williams but the style of water ballet that she brought, and it’s been a hit. People are so excited to come out and see the performance and to be a part of celebrating Esther Williams because, to be honest, everybody knows who she is. She’s really a big part of the public sentiment.”
The Aqualillies honor Esther Williams’ legacy, and according to her husband, “[She] considered [them] to be the continuation of what she was doing,” Mary said, getting emotional. “It just means so much to us.”