As many parents are wishing to know how girls can be taught the use of their limbs in the water, it may be interesting to them to hear how the art is taught at Paris.
The water is that of the Seine. This is the least agreeable circumstance in the case, as the water of the Seine is quite as unfragrant in the summer months as that of the Thames. Whether it is purified on entering the baths, I do not know. Let us hope it is. The bath is moored in the river, and the space occupied by water is 120 feet in length; a course long enough to afford room for all the exercises connected with swimming. A wooden platform, three or four feet under water, reaches to about the middle of the width of the bath; and this is for the use of children, and mere bathers who do not swim. The other half is of a considerable depth in the middle, admitting of practice in genuine diving.
The dress is excellent for the purpose. It is made of a light woollen fabric, which does not absorb much water. The trousers are loose, and fastened at the ancles. The upper dress, also loose, extends to the knee, and is belted round the waist, and closed at the neck. It is just as decent a dress as English ladies used to wear when Bath was called “The Bath,” and whon wigged gentlemen and powdered ladies used to wade about in full trim, and chat in the water.
The first step in the process of teaching is to make the pupil understand how to keep on the surface, and how to sink to the bottom. Most people know that to spread out the limbs is to float, and to double one’s self up is to sink: but it is not everybody who knows that the quickest way of going to the bottom is to raise the arms above the head. This is precisely what women do when they fall out of a boat, or find themselves overboard in a shipwreck. Up go their arms in their terror; and down they go to the bottom like a shot. This is the action used by divers, who want to reach their point by the shortest way.
From the ceiling of the Paris bath hangs a rope, which travels along on a sort of crane. Where this rope touches the water, a broad belt is attached to it. This belt is fastened easily about the pupil’s waist, supporting her in the water, and leaving her at liberty to learn the action of the limbs in swimming. She is made perfect in these, and must then try her powers without support.
To render her safe and preclude fear, the instructor (who is a master and not a mistress), walks along the edge, just before her, holding a pole within her reach, which she can grasp in an instant, if fatigued, or alarmed. It does not follow that we must have swimming-masters in England. The art is taught all along the rivers of Germany, and invariably by women in the women’s baths. In that case, the dress is less elaborate, and there is more freedom and simplicity in the practice.
It is a remarkable sight when the master is followed by ten or twenty pupils, his pole reminding one of the magnet which brings swans or fishes to the bread in a basin of water, in the old-fashioned toy which astonishes children. The second pupil has a hand on the shoulder of the first, and swims with the other three limbs; the third on the shoulder of the second; and so on — looking like a shoal of mermaids.
When so thoroughly at ease as to amuse themselves for a long time in the water, the ladies sometimes grow hungry; and then is seen another remarkable sight — not quite so pretty. They rush from the bath to a confectioner’s shop which opens upon it, and may be seen presently swimming with one hand, and with the other eating their lunch, completely at ease.
After learning the art in fresh water, it is mighty easy to swim in the sea, from the density of the water, and scarcely possible to sink. A woman who knows how to float is safe for many hours in the sea, as far as keeping on the surface is concerned. Among breakers or sharks, or in extreme cold, the peril is not of drowning simply. The simple peril of drowning might be reduced to something very small, if everybody could swim.
These particulars of the Paris school may afford some guidance as to how to set about getting women and children taught what they all ought to know; and in the hope that something may arise out of them, I offer them to the readers of Once A Week.