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History of Artistic Swimming

When artistic swimming, (formerly synchronised swimming) first originated at the turn of the 20th century, it was known as water ballet. The first artistic swimming clubs are recorded to have started around 1891 when it is thought the first competition took place in Berlin, Germany.

In 1907, Annette Kellerman, an Australian lady, caught the attention of the nation, performing in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome and became known as the underwater ballerina. A few years later a group of Canadian women developed what they called ‘ornamental swimming’.


One of the first water ballet clubs was started at the University of Chicago by Katherine Curtis after she experimented with various diving actions and stunts in the water. The team began executing strokes, “tricks,” and floating formations and they performed in the lagoon at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. This is where the term ‘synchronised swimming’ was first used by the announcer of the performance.

The term eventually became standardised through the AAU, but Curtis still used the term “rhythmic swimming” in her book, Rhythmic Swimming: A Source Book of Synchronised Swimming and Water.

Katherine Curtis was instrumental in synchronised swimming becoming a recognised sport in December 1941, and in 1979 the International Swimming Hall of Fame also recognised Katherine for her role within the sport.

A champion swimmer Ester Williams, became a Hollywood phenomenon portraying Annette Kellerman’s life in Million Dollar Mermaid. In the 1940’s and 1950’s she performed in a string of MGM ‘aqua musicals’. The art developed quickly over the next 20 years becoming extremely technical and athletically demanding and the routines were set to music.

The American artistic swimmers demonstrated the sport at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960 and artistic swimming became an official Olympic sport. Currently there are two Olympic disciplines, the duet and team routines which have been included since Sydney 2000.

Becoming an Olympic sport significantly raised the profile of synchronised swimming and as a result of the diversity of the discipline and the athleticism of the sport, it has become an increasingly popular form of entertainment at events and pool parties. The glamorous 1950s style of synchronised swimming with beautiful formations and flowery caps is always a popular choice for entertainment, along with modern day routines of acrobatic lifts and fast moving choreography.

These routines can be performed in any type of swimming pool or mass of water including open water. More innovative forms of unique water entertainment such as performing routines fully underwater in aquariums and glass tanks have also evolved especially after the success of the Vegas water shows such as Cirque Du Soleil and Le Reve, and Britain’s Got Talent underwater act finalists Aquabatique.

The demand for highly specialised underwater professional artists has also grown. This is due to the advance in technology of underwater cameras and the number of underwater studios popping up. Artistic swimmers are ideal underwater models for these type of shoots.

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