Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Posted with permission from Tribune Content Agency

PLANO, Texas — For professional mermaid Moira Dobbs, her lifelong fascination with mermaids began the way it did for many millennials her age — with the release of Disney's 1989 animated version of the Hans Christian Andersen classic, "The Little Mermaid."

"It gave a lot of voice and imagination to a lot of men and women that were little during that time. So I literally grew up being a mermaid enthusiast," the Allen resident says.

As a child, Dobbs would drape washcloths and towels over her legs during bath time to give the allusion that she had fins. In another attempt to appear more mermaidlike, she once pulled all the seashells from her mother's decorations and stuck them in her hair.

But while other millennials inevitably traded in their make-believe fins for 9-to-5 desk jobs, Dobbs, 27, found a way to parlay her childhood passion into a full-time, grown-up job. Today, she makes her living as the director of mermaid classes at Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center in Plano.

If this is the first time you've ever heard the term "mermaid classes," you are not alone. Adventure Scuba owner Richard Dean says he believes his business is only one of a few in the Metroplex offering North Texans this kind of aquatic experience. In fact, it was only just a year ago that Adventure Scuba launched its own mermaid program.

It all began when Dobbs was undergoing dive training at Adventure Scuba. Already moonlighting as a professional mermaid at birthday parties, she approached Dean and manager Brady Hale with the idea to offer customers a way to indulge their inner mermaid in a fun, safe environment.

"She came to me a year ago with a list of skills that she performs in the pool and needed a place to do it, because most public pools do not allow monofins," Dean says. "There's a misconception that monofins are unsafe. And there is something to be said about that if you are not trained in them. Which is the birth of what we're doing here."

After watching Dobbs demonstrate her skills in the pool, Dean says it became apparent that there was something there from a training standpoint. With his expertise as a course director with PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and Dobbs' overall vision, Dean saw an opportunity to take the list of skills that Dobbs had created and turn it into a complete curriculum for aspiring mermaids and mermen.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A MERMAID?

Creating the curriculum, however, presented a challenge for Dobbs. With no other programs in existence to use as guidance, she drew heavily from her own diverse background of skills, which includes competitive cheer, gymnastics, ballet and theater. The result? A mermaid program that combines performance art, fitness and water safety. Certainly, the classes can be an effective workout, as becoming mermaid graceful while swimming in a monofin requires abundant core strength.

Separated into adults and juniors, Adventure Scuba's mermaid classes are relatively small, with six to 10 students in each class. Most classes run about two hours long and take place Thursdays and Sundays. Prices range from $45 per person for the beginner's course (Discover Mermaids) to $99 for intermediate and advanced classes (Mermaid School and Siren School).

While classes are open to students as young as age 6, Dean says female millennials have been making up the bulk of the attendance. The average age of an Adventure Scuba mermaid is around 25 or 26 years old.

"We're just now getting into the kid market a little more, but so far it's just been nothing but full-grown adult women," he says. (Most of the students are women but there are mermen, too — roughly 5 percent of the class.)

Some students have aquatic backgrounds, as lifeguards and scuba divers. Others are new mothers looking for a fun way to escape. Many enjoy the cosplay aspect of mermaiding and relish the chance to dress up in full mermaid garb. Most (if not all) are looking for camaraderie.

"I joke we have an attorney mermaid. We have a personal trainer mermaid. We have so many different people that enjoy this together," Dobbs says.

Once enrolled in classes, students become instantly immersed in mermaid culture. One day they're learning to master technical skills like barrel rolls, bubble rings and tail flips. The next they're creating a "mersona" or mermaid persona, which serves as a mermaid's origin story.

Dobbs likens this part of the training to that of a cast member at Disneyland or Disney World. Students who plan on becoming professional mermaids for parties and events must learn not to break character. They must also be prepared to answer questions from inquisitive children who want to know things like what do mermaids eat and do they get cold. As Dobbs begins talking about the parallels between mermaiding and performance art, it soon becomes clear that there's much more to being a mermaid than just strapping on a fin and swimming around.

THE COUPLE THAT SWIMS TOGETHER, STAYS TOGETHER

If mermaid school had a prom queen and king, there's no doubt Katie Wettelind, 21, and Kyle Wright, 20, both of Frisco, Texas, would be royalty. The newly engaged couple have been taking mermaid classes since February and are currently in the process of becoming certified mermaid instructors.

Unlike Dobbs, who came to Adventure Scuba with prior mermaiding experience, Wetteland and Wright were not even aware mermaid classes existed. The couple, who are both avid sky divers, were working at a skydive training facility when a chance encounter led them into the world of mermaids and mermen.

"I was checking this woman in and she had mermaid leggings on," Wetteland says.

Captivated by her attire, Wetteland decided to ask the woman what she did for a living. "She said 'Oh, I'm a mermaid instructor at Adventure Scuba.'"

The woman in the mermaid leggings turned out to be Dobbs. By the time the conversation ended, Wetteland had (unbeknownst to Wright) signed them both up for classes.

Wetteland remembers it well. "I ran upstairs to tell Kyle, who was in the process of getting a class ready to go fly. I said 'Hey, babe! I signed us up for mermaid school.'"

While some boyfriends might have balked at the idea of taking mermaid classes, Wright dove into the experience with an open mind. He's merman proud.

"I love being in the water. I love trying new things, especially with Katie," Wright says. "So whenever I saw how excited she was to try it out and I met Moira, it just sounded like a lot of fun."

Once in the water, Wetteland excelled. Wright, not so much. After 30 minutes of struggling with his newly acquired fins, he finally hit his stride. In a surprising turn of events, Wright says he now prefers swimming with his tail.

"Tails are the better way to go. When Ariel [in 'The Little Mermaid'] says flipping your fins you don't get too far, she's lying. You get much farther," Wetteland says.

Discussing Dobbs' meticulously-designed curriculum, Wright says he was surprised at just how in-depth the safety aspect of the mermaid classes turned out to be. On the first day of class, he assumed he'd be wearing a fin and swimming around in the pool. He was wrong.

"Before we could even put the tails on, we had to go through a swim aptitude test to make sure that we were strong swimmers," he says. "We had to do back flips and front flips to make sure we were comfortable with the water."

As one of the few—and maybe only—certified mercouples in North Texas, Wetteland and Wright recently decided to take their training a step further and become certified mermaid instructors. While becoming an instructor will no doubt bring about more business and financial opportunities, Wetteland says her actions are motivated by something more simple.

"I wanted to get into it just for the sheer enjoyment I get out of people's reactions," Wetteland says. "It's an amazing experience just to see how happy people get when they see a mermaid. Even adults."

THE FUTURE OF FINS

In just the past few months, media interest in Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center's mermaid classes has skyrocketed despite no formal marketing for the program. Currently, the Facebook pages for the Official Texas Mermaid Pod and the Adventure Mermaid Scuba Pod combined have almost 300 members total. The North Texas mermaid community is growing, but Dean is quick to admit he didn't always see the full potential of having mermaid classes.

"I had originally thought it was going to be a program that kind of developed into just backyard birthday parties for little kids," he concedes.

So what does the future hold for Adventure Scuba's mermaid program? If you ask Dean or Dobbs, they'd probably say world domination. Dean is currently in the process of getting the program officially licensed, with plans to spread it all over the country. He also has several new specialty classes in the works, including a concept he calls "mermaid yoga."

As for Dobbs, she plans to continue to use her platform to educate the general public about topics like mermaid culture ("We're not delusional. We just like to have fun in a silly way.") and ocean conservation (a cause near to her heart). With so much interest in mermaids these days, she says she finds it more important than ever to remind students that not all mermaids have to look like Ariel.

"You don't have to be a size 2 redhead to be a mermaid fan, to swim as a mermaid [or] to even perform or work in an aquatic career like I do," Dobb says.

When asked what her biggest dream for the future of the program is, she responds with the same thing she told Dean and Hale the first time she approached them with her idea for mermaid classes.

"I want the moms and dads to say 'Hey, hon. Do you want to do soccer? Do you want to do ballet or do you want to mermaid?'" she says. "I want it to be a household recognized extracurricular and something that just absolutely empowers both genders."