Atlanta native and trained dancer Rachel Shiffman lives most of her life on land, but the sea is her occupation. Mermaid Rae (her “Mersona”) appears at birthdays, bachelorette parties, corporate events, and whichever memorable occasion wants to employ her sparkle, charm, and wiggling tail.
“My biggest joy is definitely working with the kids and creating that magical world where mermaids exist,” Shiffman says. “I also do ‘land’ appearances, as a pool is not always a viable option. With land appearances, I read a book and also share facts about the ocean and ways to protect our ocean’s ecosystem. I got into ‘mersiding’ by being in the water. I grew up swimming and dancing; and this was a way I could do both while using the platform to educate others about our oceans.”
Folklore, operas, paintings, and animation abound with mermaid tales. Think about Disney’s “Little Mermaid,” with perky red-headed Ariel or Daryl Hannah’s mermaid portrayal in the film “Splash” (1984), where her character and the character played by Tom Hanks fall in love. Or go way back to sightings of mythical water spirits by Christopher Columbus. Commonly portrayed as half-human maiden, half-fish, the mermaid is typically depicted as a beauty with long flowing hair. They were also rumored to be seals or manatees mistaken by lovelorn sailors for human sirens. Consider the plotlines of stories in which mermaids bestow favors or fall in love with humans and then have to decide where to live.
Shiffman grew up in Marietta, attending Congregation Bet Haverim. She worked intermittently throughout the Atlanta Jewish community after graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in Judaic Studies and a certification in Middle Eastern Studies with a concentration in Holocaust Studies. She told the AJT, “I found my Jewish identity as a young adult on my college campus. I was very involved with my Hillel, Chabad and Birthright. Birthright inspired me to travel back post-college. Upon my second visit to Israel, I studied dance with the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Ga’aton. I have since worked at the MJCC and have been dancing professionally.”
During the pandemic, Shiffman had to rethink her mermaid performance according to COVID safety guidelines, starting with a contract to ensure her safety and the safety of those attending the event, especially when working with children and water. She provides inclusive games for swimmers of every level and answers questions. She offers one-on-one private swims so that if a parent is uncomfortable with a large group, their child can still have an inclusive experience.
Shiffman is protective of the secrets and magic of how her appearance works. She often has a handler carry her to the pool or gets ready before the children arrive. For costuming, it depends on the mermaid. Shiffman leans toward bright colors. She has tails in magenta and blue; another tail is more sparkling emerald green and lemon yellow. “I do not use a full silicone tail,” she explained, “so my tails tend to be a lot lighter, whereas the full silicone tails are much more expensive and heavier. I would say my tail becomes a part of me in the water. It is like a swimmer when we practice, or better yet, a freediver who wears a monofin; it propels me through the water like a fin on a dolphin. All tails weigh differently as they are made up of different materials. Also, the monofin that goes inside the tail usually weighs the most.”
Shiffman has never been to Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County, Florida, where mermaids perform for tourists, or did, pre-COVID. She did watch “The Thirteenth Year,” a 1999 film about a young man who develops fins and communicates with sea life. The story made her fall in love with the idea of mermaids. “There are mermaids in Israel, there are mermaids all over the world,” Shiffman said. “There are even pageant competitions and ‘pods’ where groups of mermaids from different areas get together to swim and connect.”
The mermaid life may not last forever. Rachel is working toward a full-time position in the Jewish world. For now, you can follow her on Instagram @atlmermaid_rae.
- Marcia Caller Jaffee
- Arts and Culture
- Rachel Shiffman
- Mermaid Rae
- bachelorette parties
- corporate events
- memorable occasion
- Mermaid Tales
- Disney’s “Little Mermaid"
- Daryl Hannah
- Tom Hanks
- Christopher Columbus
- Congregation Bet Haverim
- Atlanta Jewish Community
- University of Arizona
- degree in Judaic Studies
- certification in Middle Eastern Studies
- concentration in Holocaust Studies
- Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company
- COVID safety guidelines
- full silicone tail
- “The Thirteenth Year"
- land appearances
- Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta