The world of queer synchronized swimming is very small. But the Subversive Sirens, a non-binary synchronized swimming team out of Minnesota, is making a big splash. (Forgive the pun.)
Advocating for Black liberation, queer visibility, equity in aquatics and radical body acceptance, the swimming team had its beginnings in 2016 when Signe Harriday, an activist and Black leader in Minneapolis and St. Paul, attended the Gay Games and decided she wanted to participate.
“She asked me if I wanted to compete with her, and it sounded like fun, so I said yes,” said Longfellow resident Suzy Messerole, a member of the Subversive Sirens. “I thought we would be engaging in self-care, and it would be a good thing.”
Messerole said they looked through the menu of competition. “We wanted nothing with a ball and nothing where we had to run. We saw synchronized swimming and we thought, ‘We can totally do this!’
“We swim. We dance. We do yoga. And Signe had a one-week synchronized swimming camp in the fourth grade. So we were totally ready,” Messerole said.
“We started practicing, and we were taken under the wing of these synchronized swimmers in their 70s. We got three other people to join us, and we competed in duet and team combo,” she said. They won gold in team combo and silver in duet in their age group. They also won gold
and silver at the 2019 International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA).
Most recently, The Subversive Sirens presented a combination piece of synchronized swimming and lesbian love poetry.
“I’m a theater artist,” said Messerole. “I wanted to explore the more theatrical views of synchronics. I wanted to do something that could be done in an outdoor pool, and the poetry was an inspiration.”
She was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board and Artists Initiative grant to do a piece in a swimming pool, and two weeks later COVID-19 hit.
Messerole got the music, composed by Peter Morrow, and the poetry by Natalie Barney and Audre Lorde. It took her nine months to create the three-minute sequence in synchronized swimming. Morrow composed three songs, and the first one was used for this piece of theatrical synchrosity called “Love of Silver Water.”
The event was presented June 15, and Messerole taught the public some synchro as part of it. “We were having so much fun in the water,” she said. The State Arts Board allowed those who received their funding at the height of COVID-19 to wait a year to give their performance.
Messerole said the two-hour event at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park included the performance, synchronized swimming lessons and a splash mob.
Messerole said she will do the other two pieces of music at some point. “The last piece is really meant to involve lots of community,” she said. “The dream is I would teach a little bit of synchro to 15 to 20 people, and they would enter the water for the last piece of the song.”
Because the Sirens are competing next summer and getting their routines ready, Messerole said she might wait until after that to work on the choreography for the second piece of her grant.
The Sirens practice every Saturday on a regular basis at the Phillips Aquatic Center in Minneapolis. ‘That pool is awesome,” she said. “We love them. They love us. It’s a pool where swimmers of color on our team have never had an issue. And that’s not true for all pools.”
When getting ready for a performance, Messerole said the Sirens practice three to four times a week.
“There are queer swimming teams in a lot of different states. New York and California have big ones,” Messerole said. “There is an organization in the Bronx that is almost all elderly Black folks who do synchronized swimming. In the Twin Cities, the group called the Northern Pikes took us under their wing and taught us to swim.
“But our pillars are very specific to us,” she added. “All of us are activists, and these issues feel very connected to us.” Messerole said one thing has changed for The Subversive Sirens, however.
“When we started we were super body punked, and body autonomy was very important to us, but loving your body was almost overwhelming to some. So we have gone down the path of really understanding what body autonomy is. And for some, that hyper positivity was too much.”
She said the synchronized swimmers are people who are day in and day out activists. “We’re trying to imagine a better world. Envision large-scale as well as small-scale changes. It is not lost on us who does and doesn’t have access to water, a connection to the land, or who is most affected by the Supreme Court decision on abortion rights.
“We were not surprised at the over-turning of Roe V. Wade,” Messerole said. “These rights are all connected, and we try to disseminate good information and try to really message that there are organizations on the ground prepped and ready for this.”
She said people have been working on these issues for a long time, and there is a deep connection between the loss of medical rights for transgender people and loss of rights for women.
Messerole said the journey (seeking equality) has been long. “It has been long for the seven generations before us, and it will last into the next seven generations,” she stated.
She said that there is an element of what the Subversive Sirens do to encourage care and encourage people to engage with their bodies. “There is something very important about not disconnecting with your body,” Messerole said.
“Before the pandemic, we were doing monthly splashes, where 30 to 40 people aged two to 90 would come out. We would teach synchro and then do a splash mob. That is just such a really great thing for people who have not felt welcome. It is sometimes very challenging for people of color and Trans folks.
“We do a lot more than just spread joy,” Messerole affirmed. “Community is a very big part of our strategy.”
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