It’s 4pm on a Wednesday evening and the smaller of the two pools at the Al Safa Private School in Dubai transforms into an unlikely stage. Olivia, Estee and a clutch of other girls are inside doing a warm-up. Heeding the instructions of their twin Egyptian coaches Sarah and Heba Abdel Gawad, they speed-swim in sync with some peppy music.
At one point they are handed bottles. “The bottles help them float and find balance upside down when they are under water,” said Heba, who like her sister is a former Olympic synchronised swimmer.
Synchronised swimming or Synchro is a hybrid form of swimming, dance and gymnastics in which swimmers perform a synchronised routine of arm and leg movements accompanied by music. For the first time in the UAE this is being taught to children and adults by the Olympian twins, in partnership with M&S Sport Services.
“We started off in December last year and we have taught over 70 children so far. We conduct adult classes too but the focus here is more on fitness,” said Sarah.
She said the “synquatics” or water ballet classes (Dh70 per session) are tailored to different musical themes.
Art or sport
To those who may wonder if this is a sport or an art she said: “There was a lot of emphasis on validating the sport element of synchronised swimming earlier. But now the artistic side is equally popular. In fact, synchronised swimming is rated both for technical and artistic merit.”
This also explains why synchronised swimmers are sometimes referred to as water ballerinas and are invited to perform at weddings, parties and galas.
“A pre-requisite for those wanting to learn synchro is that they should know how to swim. The ones who do well are invariably from gymnastics or ballet backgrounds,” said Heba.
She said a typical synchro class entails three stages. After the warm-up which is the first stage, the swimmers are taught the skills and techniques.
“We don’t touch the floor of the pool. So you have to learn to carry your own body weight. Breath control is also very important because most of the work is done underwater with leg movements. So we teach students how to scull and support themselves underwater. We also train them on the egg-beater so they can support themselves while doing arm movements.”
The actual dance is in the final stage. “All skills are choreographed into a dance that is set to themed music. There is also an acrobatic element entailing lifts, jumps and flips.”
Although the classes are open to boys, only the girls tend to enroll in the UAE. The children’s batch is for ages 5 to 19.
Justine Guyett, mother of Estee, 12, said she enrolled her daughter because she was looking for a “cool” sport. “My daughter has a base in gymnastics and trampoline and this was a sport that combines all the skills.”
Rachel Allen, mother of twins Olivia and Georgia, 10, said: “My girls always wanted to do synchronised swimming. What I like is that it combines art and sport to work together instead of competing with each other.”
But synchro is not for the weak. As Debbie Steedman, mother of Rachel, 8, said: “You need to be strong to do it. I used to do it as a teenager and it takes a strong body, a lot of stamina and determination. It’s a good discipline for children.”
At the end of every term each group gives a public performance, complete with costumes and hairdo. One batch even got to do Les Misérable which held audiences spellbound.
By Sharmila Dhal Do you think synchronised swimming is an art or a sport? How big will it get in the UAE? Share your comments with us below!