RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Children with disabilities being treated at Brazil's hospitals, where economic hardship has crimped services, are getting an emotional lift from a mythical creature of the sea: a mermaid.
But in this instance, the siren is quite real.
Carol Catan has earned her living portraying a mermaid and teaching mermaiding since 2012, when she left her job of 10 years as a veterinarian. She is paid for performing at events such as children's parties but donates her time at hospitals.
Positioned in a wheelchair so that wheelchair-bound children can relate to her, Catan says volunteering at hospitals is among her most rewarding experiences.
Dressed in costume with a long, shiny green tail, she chats with young patients and "they feel included, cherished."
"It is a very beautiful and gratifying thing."
Catan says demand for her services, which declined in the midst of Brazil's worst recession in more than 100 years, recovered because of a soap opera called "A Forca do Querer," in which a woman deceives her family so she can work as a mermaid at an aquarium.
Like the fictional character, Catan is hired by aquariums in summertime, but much of her work entails classes and parties. She does her mermaid routine in a pool whenever one is available at an event. Otherwise, the "mermaid" assumes her throne in an armchair.
Catan says she has been fond of mermaids since childhood, when she practiced swimming with her legs joined. Inspiration came from the 1984 movie "Splash," starring Daryl Hannah as a mermaid with flowing blond hair and a long red tail.
"It was not the long hair ... it was really that huge tail that she had," says Catan. "I thought it was incredible."
Catan practices every day and can spend up to four minutes underwater between breaths when she is in peak condition.
One might think that teaching mermaiding and earning a living posing as one is exceptionally rare, but Catan is not the only mermaid in town.
Thais Picchi, a former ballet dancer turned civic rights trainer in the capital Brasilia, dove into mermaiding after a personal crisis four years ago prompted her to find ways to reduce stress.
She got into diving, sought lessons in underwater dancing and then discovered the mermaid movement. Picchi took a month-long course last year in the Philippines to learn free diving and mermaid skills.
Picchi now teaches classes around Brazil.
"I fell in love with it," Picchi says, noting that many of her clients associate mermaids with beauty, sensuality, freedom and motherhood.
"When they dress up as mermaids," she says, " ... the session changes because they identify with those values."
Women in Brazil are not unique in their affinity for mermaiding. Classes are held as far away as Texas and some folks wonder if mermaiding will be the next fitness craze.
Only tails will tell.
(Click on reut.rs/2vHOvoN for related photo essay)
Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Pilar Olivares; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Toni Reinhold