Making a Splash: Meet the Candler Park Water Ballerinas


On a sunny June afternoon, a line of women wearing black bathing suits, sparkling tiaras and long strings of pearl-colored beads strutted along the edge of the swimming pool at Candler Park.

“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” blared from a poolside boombox. Waving colorful swimming noodles over their heads, the eight ladies from the Candler Park Water Ballet Company danced their way into the pool and began twisting, shimmying and paddling through routines set to songs such as “Roll Out The Barrel” and “The Stripper.”

Artistic Director Patti Kunkle called out moves and shouted encouragement to the dancing women. “Have your hands on your hips, like you’re a hoochie coochie girl,” she yelled at one point.

For about a decade, the return of summer has brought the return of the water dancers of Candler Park. They call themselves “deep people in the shallow end” or “the watery tarts.” They range in age from 50 to 70.

“It’s a good group of women,” said Laura Nolan, who calls herself “co-founder and team philosopher” of the company. “Anybody who wants to show up for water ballet in the shallow end is going to have a good sense of humor.”

And there’s a lot of laughing out loud in this group. Their motto: “Wetter is better.”
“It’s completely goofy. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it,” water dancer Julie Bookman said. “It’s just about comedy in the water.”

The idea of a community water ballet troupe was born during an after-hours confab at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club, a venerable watering hole in nearby Little Five Points, as Nolan tells it.

She worked at the Yacht Club then, and one night after work, she said, several employees who were dancing in a booth joked they should found a water ballet. “We were always in the water, anyway,” she said. “I think it was just another way of being silly.”

They mentioned the idea to their friend Donna Palmer, who started recruiting others to join in. Kunkle, who calls herself “Queen of Little Five Points” and who had experience as a tap dancer, agreed to choreograph.

“I’m just a dancing fool,” Kunkle joked before admitting that her tap-dancing background offered little guidance for water-ballet choreography because the audience can’t see the dancers’ feet under water.

But stylish steps aren’t the reason this company hits the water. Why do they it? “To get together and do something different that reflects this part of the world, our ability to let our freak flag fly,” Palmer said before pointing out that an ability to swim isn’t a prerequisite for joining the water ballet.

“It’s fun,” Palmer said. “It gets me out of the house. It’s something to look forward to, to seeing my friends. And my grandchildren love it. I want to show children that when you get older, you don’t have to sit at home and watch Oprah. It’s great to show the world I’m still here. I’m still crazy after all these years.”

The company now claims from 12 to 14 to 20 members, depending on who’s counting. They get together on Thursdays at the Candler Park Swimming Pool to practice their routines. They do a couple of performances each year, ending with their Grand Finale show at the Candler Park pool on Aug. 28

Each dancer individualizes her own costume, but long strings of beads and tiaras are universal accessories. “We try to make it hoity and toity,” Palmer said.

Front center: Patti Kunkle. Behind left to right: Cheryl Strauss, Julie Bookman, Donna Palmer, Ro Denham, Barb Tucker, Frani Green and Marie Bosler. (All photos by Joe Earle)

And it seems that just about everybody in the company has been bestowed some sort of title. “Everybody deserves a title, just like everybody deserves a tiara,” Nolan said.

In recent years, on July 4, members of the company have staged “splashmob” performances, in which they’d drift into various nearby pools in ones and twos pretending to be regular holiday swimmers and then gather as a group and start dancing, astonishing onlookers. They’ve also performed at parties. “We perform for anybody who asks us,” Palmer said. “We usually don’t charge a fee, but we do ask for a cocktail.”

Hitting the pool in a tiara and fake pearls is reward enough, they say. After all, it gives them a chance to strut their stuff. “An older woman is supposed to have certain flaws,” Kunkle said. “We accentuate them. We’re proud of who we are.”

Besides, she said, “it’s a hoot.”

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