Arts & Culture News

Submerged in Subculture: Inside Plano's Mermaid School

Moira Dobbs (second from left) swims with a pod of mermaids (Virginia Cox, Melanie Hancock and Ashton Larson) at the Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center in Plano.
Moira Dobbs (second from left) swims with a pod of mermaids (Virginia Cox, Melanie Hancock and Ashton Larson) at the Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center in Plano. Can Turkyilmaz
Moira Dobbs is a mermaid. Her makeup is still intact when she emerges gracefully from the water. She can hold her breath underwater for minutes at a time. She tears up when she thinks about all the trash in the ocean. She swims with a fin and cloth tail.

Before she was a mermaid, she was a performer — first a trained ballerina (her mother was a Kilgore College Rangerette) and then a thespian. In college, she mastered the art of performing in haunted houses so well that people would often run from her, screaming.

She’s also a teacher. Her dance background led her to her first adult job — a gymnastics and cheer coach. She says she’s experienced the fear of having a child tumble toward her while the mother intently looks on.
That taught her to be comfortable having someone’s safety dependent on her. Eventually, she took it further and became a Red Cross emergency first response instructor.

Dobbs is a lot of things. But maybe more than anything, she’s a pioneer for merfolk. Today, she’s the director of the mermaid school at Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center. The Official Texas Mermaid Pod Facebook group that Dobbs created, which has about 150 members (95 percent female), is filled with merfolk from all over the state who share mermaid links, makeup tutorials, pictures and merchandise; ask one another questions; and build their mer-community.

No one in the community actually identifies as a merperson, including Dobbs. But merfolk still qualify as a legitimate subculture: They have a common interest in swimming like fish, share a belief system based on environmentalism and congregate in social groups outside of their families.  

Dobbs says there is nowhere else in the country that has a mermaid school like the one she helped create. While there are other such classes in California, Canada, Chicago and Phoenix, Dobbs says her mermaid school is the only one with a storefront that also operates year-round.

"Does this exist anywhere else? No," Dobbs says. "This curriculum isn't mirrored from anything else. I didn't go and train anywhere.”

click to enlarge Dobbs (right) poses underwater with fellow mermaid, Ashton Larson. - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Dobbs (right) poses underwater with fellow mermaid, Ashton Larson.
Can Turkyilmaz

'I'm a mermaid'

Dobbs bought her first fin from a shop on Etsy. She perfected her swimming technique at a lap pool in Denton. Soon, she was marketing herself as a mermaid who would perform at children’s birthday parties. When she connected with other mermaid enthusiasts through word of mouth and online, she began recreationally teaching others how best to mermaid. They would often practice in a lap pool.

A few years after that and about one year ago, Dobbs headed to Adventure Scuba to take scuba diving lessons. The general manager of the shop, Brady Hale, noticed Dobbs doing something different with her feet.

“When she got in the pool, she was kicking her legs together like a dolphin,” Hale says. “When she came up from the water, I said, ‘What are you? A dolphin? Kick with both legs.’ And she looked right at me and said, ‘No, I'm a mermaid.’”

This was a lightbulb moment for Hale. The owner of the scuba shop, Richard Dean, had asked him to bring something different to the shop. When Hale went to a trade show and saw a tail manufacturer, he thought introducing mermaids to children's birthday parties at the shop could be a perfect addition.

“Unfortunately, neither one of us look good in a tail, so it just kind of sat on the shelf for a while,” Hale says.
But when he met Dobbs, he offered her a deal.

“We instantly gave her some exclusivity,” Hale says. “We said, ‘Hey, we'll give you some pool time, and we'll let all your mermaids come here, and it's private, an indoor facility — you don't have to rent the pool — so you can train here.’

"They had no place to go, actually. Other pools didn't want them in there with the monofins. They perceived it as being a safety hazard. It kind of sparked our interest in trying to come up with a training program and take that objection away from the public.”

The American Lifeguard Association does consider swimming with a monofin a safety issue. B.J. Fisher, the director of health and safety for the association, says it advises lifeguards to restrict them in the pools.

“It’s tying your feet up," Fisher says. "A lot of people don’t know this, but children can drown in water they can stand in because they lose their footing, and then the next thing you know, they panic and they drown."

Dobbs says training and attentive patenting can help someone avoid these tragedies.

"I want this to be a really fun, safe and positive environment," she says.

After incorporating mermaids into children's birthday parties at the scuba shop, Dobbs began working with Dean and Hale to write curriculum for a mermaid school. Dobbs laid everything out on a dry-erase board and showed them what she had been doing in the pool for years. From there, Dean standardized the moves into classwork. The class explores the roles of mermaids in history and focuses on modern environmentalism.

“It was all the stuff that I naturally wanted to do,” Dobbs says. "I soaked up TV and books — anything I could get my hands on — mythology and cinema. Because I had been so ensconced in that industry as a fan my whole life, I knew all the things I would want to integrate and teach."

In 2016, Dobbs became the official director of mermaid school at Adventure Scuba. Soon, students began to fill classes of 10 students each. People began signing up, and not just locals. Interested merfolk came from other Texas cities, Washington, D.C., and Florida.

click to enlarge Dobbs, director of the mermaid school, instructs students on how to move a monofin tail in water. - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Dobbs, director of the mermaid school, instructs students on how to move a monofin tail in water.
Can Turkyilmaz

'Little band of eco-warriors'

One Sunday afternoon before a beginner class, 7-year-old twins and their mother walk into the scuba shop.

“Hey, mermaids!” Dobbs exclaims.

While Dobbs and the students are in the pool, the twins’ mother, Jennifer Kapp, watches her daughters from the bleachers. She takes pictures and videos but lets Dobbs do the instructing. She says the girls have been playing mermaid in the pool for some time. But when she bought the girls fins, they didn’t know how to swim in them, so she tried teaching them.

“They said to me, ‘Well, Mom, how do you know how to do it?’ I told them, ‘I wasn’t always a human,’” Kapp says.

Dobbs and Hale speak of the Santa Claus years, when a child is young enough to believe in mermaids and in a hairy holiday man. So a child's age changes how the instructors speak to him or her about mermaids.

“If we catch the kids in what we call the Santa Claus years, like 3 to 10, personifying the ocean is a great way to educate,” Dobbs says, “and also pretty much the coolest thing you could have at birthday parties. I’ll bring trash out to show them and say, ‘When I swim home, this stuff is all over where I live.’ And you just see their little faces, and that moment is what it’s all about for me.

click to enlarge Dobbs teaches her students about the monofin and the cloth tail. - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Dobbs teaches her students about the monofin and the cloth tail.
Can Turkyilmaz
"I've made the coolest job ever. I mean arguably for me, it is the coolest job ever. But inspiring a little band of eco-warriors is a big part of that. That's what makes me feel really good about it.”

If a birthday party is for a child older than 10, however, the conversation and activities shift, Hale says.

“As they get older and those Santa Claus years go away, then we transition into [how to] become a mermaid,” he says. “Like, ‘This is how you swim in a mermaid tail.’ It's just a basic discovery program of here's how you try it out.”

But it’s not just children living out their childhood fantasies of wanting to become mermaids. Several adult women join the girls for the beginner class. Jo Rumfelt says she saw something about mermaiding online and wanted to give it a try. She bought a monofin and used it while on vacation but recently attended school for the first time.

Brandy Hite, another woman taking the class is more of a veteran. She’s been a few times and says mermaiding is hard work on the body “but so worth it.”

“It’s a fantasy come to life,” she says. “It’s magical.”

click to enlarge Moira Dobbs and Kelsey Hudson - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Moira Dobbs and Kelsey Hudson
Can Turkyilmaz

'World of imagination'

Mermaids have been a part of literature and culture since ancient Mesopotamia. Professor Sarah Peverley at the University of Liverpool, who is writing a cultural history of the mermaid, says mermaids in literature can represent a wide range of ideas, including nature, supernatural power, knowledge, female sexuality, love and sin.

The first recorded mermaid story was about Atargatis, Peverley says, who was a Syrian fertility goddess “who fell in love with a human but threw herself into water in shame when she became pregnant. Instead of perishing, she transformed into a mermaid.”

In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid, a grim story about a young mermaid who desperately wants to be human with an eternal soul and marry her prince charming. Instead, the prince marries someone else, and the mermaid dies from a broken heart, throws herself off a ship and becomes an earthbound spirit.

The Disney adaptation is happier and ends with Ariel, the mermaid, becoming a human and marrying her prince with her father's approval. Although Dobbs is knowledgable about the mythology and history of mermaids, her clients typically only speak about Disney's cartoon mermaid.

Almost all of the mermaids during class say the 1989 film was one of the inspirations for why they chose to pursue lives — in some regard — as mermaids.

Chris Bell, the director of graduate studies and associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, studies children's media. He says children learn what it means to be an adult in society from the things adults give them to consume and play with.

“Media does not exist to provide entertainment,” he says. “It's not what they do. Media provides entertainment in order to teach us how to be members of our society.”

Bell says Disney movies and products are some of the first things children are exposed to.

“Those Disney products provide us with entertainment, but they also teach us an awful lot about ourselves, about the world and about our place in it,” he says.

So it’s not surprising people see Ariel in The Little Mermaid and want to be her. Ariel’s character lives in the sea, has a beautiful voice, falls in love with a prince and lives happily ever after.

“Ariel provides us with a feeling that the world we live in, for real, is in some way lacking,” Bell says, adding that the tangible magic is what’s lacking in the real world and that children desire something magical as soon as they begin absorbing Disney magic. "We grow up with this idea that somehow the real world is flat and boring and the world of imagination is so much better.”

Hite, one of the mermaids in Dobbs' class, says the Netflix show H2O: Just Add Water is her favorite television show about mermaids. The show is targeted at 5- to 12-year-olds, according to Netflix. Hite is in her early 30s. 

But Bell says that’s not unusual.

"You can get past a lot of stuff, like a poorly made TV show, if you're into a particular piece of it,” he says. 

For example, Bell says, he watched Disney’s Girl Meets World, a spinoff of the popular '90s show Boy Meets World, because he's interested in seeing the characters he became familiar with when he was younger. Although the newer TV show was aimed at tweens, he wanted to see Cory and Topanga and recapture this part of his childhood.

“As an adult, you can get past a lot of what in my own work I call 'transgressive fandom,' like being a fan of a thing that's not for you if you find the element within it that is for you," he says.

click to enlarge Dobbs (second from left) swims with mermaids at the Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center in Plano. - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Dobbs (second from left) swims with mermaids at the Adventure Scuba and Snorkeling Center in Plano.
Can Turkyilmaz

'It's pretty intense'

Other mermaids help during Adventure Scuba's classes and birthday parties. Katie Wetteland and Kyle Wright, who are engaged, work mainly as skydiving instructors. Wetteleand says she became interested in mermaid classes when Dobbs took a skydiving class from them.

“I thought she was really cool just as a person,” Wetteland says of Dobbs. “She was wearing some like scale leggings or something and I was like, ‘Those are so cool.’ And so I got to talking to her about it, and she was like, ‘I'm a professional mermaid.’ I said, ‘Oh my god, I would love to get into that because I just love doing fun things in general.’ She told me about the class, and I signed up while she was standing in front of me."

“Well, you signed yourself up and Kyle, too,” Dobbs adds.

"We wanna be just like Moira when we grow up,” says Wright, one of the few mermen taking classes.

About a month later, Wetteland and Wright are coaches working their way to becoming instructors. Dean says the two must take a five-day course he leads to officially become a mermaid school instructor. He did the same apprenticeship with Dobbs.

"It's pretty intense,” Dean says about the course. “All of the legal risks and all the responsibilities of being an instructor with people's wellbeing in your care is important for them to know. We teach them rescue skills — not just how to put on a tail and swim in the water. It's about how to teach other people how to do that and all the background stuff that goes along with that."

During class, Dobbs focuses on the women while her assistants help with the twins. Even though the class is crowded and a scuba class is loudly finishing, Dobbs keeps everyone’s attention and is constantly surveying the pool and counting to make sure all heads are above water.

“Where is Kyle?” Dobbs asks. “Has anyone seen Kyle?” She looks down in the water. A few seconds later, he walks out of the restroom. “You need to tell me next time you’re going to the restroom, bud,” Dobbs tells him.

They are all business in the pool during mermaid school. But once the last student has left, the merfolk begin joking around with one another and showing off aquatic tricks.

click to enlarge Moira Dobbs leads her mermaid class in splashing water with their tails. - CAN TURKYILMAZ
Moira Dobbs leads her mermaid class in splashing water with their tails.
Can Turkyilmaz

'Is it really that different?'

The merfolk of North Texas are forming a community. One recent Saturday afternoon, the mermaids hung out in Plano’s Texas Pool, wearing their monofins while swimming and splashing around and posting photos on Facebook. Later that evening, Dobbs headed to the hair salon with another mermaid and dyed her hair with hints of red, purple and blue to better fit the mold.

Mermaiding might seem bizarre to outsiders at first. Dobbs is self-aware enough to realize others might not understand it, but she’s passionate about the job, teaching others what she knows and educating anyone about marine life.

When you observe the interactions among the merfolk, the camaraderie is just like any other group of people with shared interests. The motivations may vary — pursuing an alternative workout or an alternative lifestyle — but Dobbs says the appeal of it is universal.

"We get a lot of different walks of life, a lot of diverse swimmers, people that consider themselves water spirits in different ways,” Dobbs says. "It's so many different people and body types and genders, everything. Out of everything, I love that it so easily celebrates all the different walks of life that come in here to mermaid school."

Hale says mermaiding is just meant to be enjoyed: “Is it really that different from joining a softball team?”

Living Fantasy in DFW

click to enlarge Furries can be any type of animal. - PAVEL L/SHUTTERSTOCK
Furries can be any type of animal.
Pavel L/Shutterstock
If you can think it, someone is probably living it. There are dozens of subcultures in DFW dedicated to fantasy realms. Whether people choose to become mythological creatures, historical figures or entertainment inventions, they share a passion for individual escapism and a sense of community.

Vampire Court of Dallas
The VCD aims to serve the vampire community in Dallas. To become a part of this nonprofit organization, one must fill out an application, attend a meeting and pass a membership vote. Meetings convene once a month, and nearly 1,000 people like the group's page on Facebook.

The Society for Creative Anachronism
The SCA, an international organization, is dedicated to re-creating the arts and traditions of pre-17th century Europe. The Texas region of SCA is called the Kingdom of Ansteorra, and the Dallas branch is the Barony of the Steppes. The branch's Facebook group has about 900 members, and it meets monthly to discuss the logistics of running the group and upcoming events.

The Bronies of UTD
There are those who love My Little Pony so much they dress like the characters. With about 65 members in a Facebook group, the Bronies of the University of Texas at Dallas share thoughts on My Little Pony and, well, spread its magic. Members must wait 48 hours before posting anything about a new episode on the page.

A furry is someone who is interested in anthropomorphic animals, says Hayden Schoonmaker, a member of DFW Furries. He says one of the biggest misconceptions about furries might be that they have sex in their costumes. “The best thing about having a fursuit is being able to hide your real identity,” he says. “Some people use suits as an outlet to be themselves because of anxiety or [they're] just not good with people. So it helps to meet up in a group you know will accept you for you.”

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Paige Skinner has written for the Dallas Observer since 2014.
Contact: Paige Skinner