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The Coney Island Mermaid Parade & Ball
June 28, 2005

Written by Ilise S. Carter


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Like some Pagan ritual of yore, every summer solstice finds the gritty streets and boardwalks of Coney Island transformed into an undersea paradise of mermaids, Neptunes and other strange and mythical sea creatures. Following this grand and joyous tradition, the 2005 Mermaid Parade snakes its way through an ocean of onlookers to the raucous, uninhibited sounds of drums, dance music and brass bands. Even the interpretation of the mermaid’s costume is freewheeling and fun; ranging from outer space sirens to geisha sea nymphs and every glittering thing in between.

Hosted by Coney Island USA, a foundation with the aim of preserving and celebrating the neighborhood’s rich and often colorful history, the Mermaid Parade highlights the revival of art, burlesque, sideshow and music programs that have flourished there over the last several years. In keeping with the eccentric and eclectic vision of Coney Island USA founder Dick Zigun, this is far from a traditional parade. Soaked by the sun and boosted by high spirits, a Mardi Gras atmosphere is in effect and the streets teem with mermaids clad in little more than a few spangles.

Throughout the day revelers, marchers and photographers happily mingle. The result is a sort of extended block party with people socializing against the surreal backdrop of creaky amusement parks and dodgy clam bars. Even after the parade has wound down, mermaids and their admirers remain -- milling around the boardwalk, popping in and out of the bars, taking in the sea breezes, and enjoying hotdogs. An intrepid few remain on into the twilight, filing in to the former Henderson’s Music Hall (now dubbed “Velocity”) for the Mermaid Ball as the evening unfurls and the neon lights flicker on along the boardwalk.

Once inside, weary sirens take the opportunity to enjoy the air conditioning and rest their land legs, while the first of several bands, burlesque dancers and carnies take to the stage. It’s another chance to see and be seen; to marvel at the tails, fins, sequins and masks; and to indulge in a little mid-summer’s fancy. As the night slips by some sip champagne, while others take full advantage of the cheap beers; as the dance floor ebbs and flows with the music, everyone seems to be enjoying the swirl.

There is, however, an unpleasant undercurrent that pervades the day: whispers about the imperiled future of nights like this. Ironically, the renaissance of Coney Island’s culture and businesses has attracted the attention of developers; who are seeking to buy up large portions of the boardwalk and convert them in to shopping malls, food courts and other corporate strongholds. This gentrification would probably leave little room for the grassroots organizations and family businesses that actually give the neighborhood its unique flavor and would turn the legendary resort in to just another generic fantasy land. Although, among most parties these concerns are dropped almost as soon as they’re brought up -- the night is too nice to worry about tomorrow and The Mermaid Parade is not about worries. It’s about these moments in the sun.


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