The women twisted forward from the waist, arms outstretched as if to perform a bizarre, ceremonial dance. An incredibly tiny woman sounded a sharp whistle blast, the dancers became paddlers, and a battered boat surged through the Patapsco River's brackish waters, bound for Thailand.
Well, not directly. But over the past eight months, 20-plus women and their male coach have spent what little free time they have preparing for the first international women's swan boat competition in Thailand.
Never heard of swan boating? Neither had these women, professionals and students and mothers, age 24 to 48, lured to the ancient sport by the promise of an (almost) expenses-paid trip to the Far East.
Some had never even paddled a canoe, coming to the first practices with backgrounds in aerobics, basketball and rowing.
But not even the canoeist and kayakers had experienced anything quite like swan-boating, a 700-year-old sport in which 20 "paddlers" propel a 48-foot boat of solid teak with an ornate swan's head on the bow. Swan boating is rare in the United States, so rare that the women's team must practice in a Hong Kong-style dragon boat, which is headless, lighter and has a differently configured hull.
The women practice here on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco because their coach, Dave Armstrong, lives in Silver Spring. Mr. Armstrong, 43, is an exercise physiologist at the Naval Hospital in Bethesda. He readily concedes that his job merely supports his 15-year-old paddling habit.
"I can't remember now if the idea came up, from me, or down [from Thai officials], but at some point it was decided that women should participate this year," Mr. Armstrong said. "It's women's year in Thailand, and the queen's 60th birthday. They even had the Miss Universe pageant."
Swan boating is less glamorous than a beauty pageant. The paddlers sit side by side on narrow wood seats reminiscent of a galley ship. The stroke requires a strong and limber back, as the women start with cheekbones almost grazing the boat's sides, then finish straight up.
"An orthopedic surgeon would probably wince to see this," Mr. Armstrong said. "Even my experienced paddlers will tell you it's a difficult workout."
The coxswain, 80-pound Mary Wong, stands in the bow, using a whistle and her voice to direct the paddlers. Beth Bogard, a Silver Spring mother expecting her third child, steers from the stern. At top speed, the women paddle 80 strokes per minute, about 12 mph. Any faster, Mr. Armstrong said, and they begin to lose power.
While the Thailand race will be a 640-meter sprint, taking perhaps 3 minutes, practices last up to two hours. On a cool September night, the women worked up a sweat within minutes, running through drills for stroke mechanics and taking a full-speed run from the Hanover Street Bridge to the dock of Baltimore's boathouse.
"There's a part during every warm-up when I think, 'What am I doing here?' " said Lydia Calnan, a 28-year-old from southern Anne Arundel County recruited at a canoe race this spring.
"Your rear end hurts more than anything," added Terry Waldspurger, 32, a linguistics researcher and student at American University. Some women blister from the narrow seats.
But the 26 women initially chosen for the team -- 20 paddlers, a coxswain, steerer and four alternates -- were in peak shape by August. They had competed for their seats in the boat, worked out with weights at the American Athletic Club in South Baltimore, and found the money to cover their uncovered expenses, including airfare. They were ready for the Sept. 13 event.
Then Thailand decided to hold its first democratic election that date, pushing the boat races to Oct. 15 and 16 -- the height of the fall rowing season. Mr. Armstrong said the team promptly lost eight "very talented" paddlers whose first allegiance was to rowing. He found replacements by calling on canoeing marathoners from throughout the country, but now has only one alternate for at least three races in Thailand.