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Title: Contortionist  
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Subject: Unitard, Contortion, The Exorcist (film), Rag Doll (comics), America's Got Talent (season 1), Golliwogg
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Contortion (sometimes contortionism) is an unusual form of physical display which involves the dramatic bending and flexing of the human body. Contortion is often part of acrobatics and circus acts. In general, "contortionists" have unusual natural flexibility, which is then enhanced through acrobatic training, or they put themselves through intense, vigorous and painful training to gain this flexibility.

In some countries like Mongolia, many people (mainly girls) learn contortion and it is considered a nationally respected art form that holds cultural importance. For hundreds of years contortionists have entertained crowds all over Mongolia. Contortionists usually start practicing from a very early age. In Mongolia the minimum acceptable age is 5, as they believe contortion can cause bone deformities in younger children. Some sports, rhythmic gymnastics for example, demand extreme flexibility but not the hand balancing skills or performance skills of a contortionist.


Most contortionists are categorized as either "frontbenders" or "backbenders", depending on the direction in which their spine is more flexible. Relatively few performers are equally adept at bending both frontwards and backwards.

Some of the skills performed by contortionists include:

  • Frontbending skills such as folding forward at the waist with the legs straight, or placing one or both legs behind the neck or shoulders with the knees bent (called a human knot).
  • Backbending skills such as touching one's head to one's feet, or all the way to the buttocks (called a head-seat), while standing, lying on the floor, or in a handstand. A Marinelli bend is a backbend while supported only by a grip at the top of a short post that is held in the mouth.
  • Splits and oversplits (a split of more than 180 degrees) may be included in frontbending or backbending acts. An oversplit may be performed while the feet are supported by two chairs or by two assistants.
  • Enterology is the practice of squeezing one's body into a small, knee-high box or other container which appears to be much too small for a person to fit in.
  • Dislocations of the shoulders or hip joints are sometimes performed as a short novelty act by itself. One example is lifting the arm to the side until it passes behind the head and lies across the top of the shoulders.

Types of performances

Like other visual arts, a contortion performance can convey any of several emotions, depending on the choreography and costumes that are chosen, as well as the personality and acting skills of the performer. Performers might choose a style that is beautiful, athletic, weird, shocking, sensual, erotic or humorous, and each has fans that prefer that particular style, sometimes to the exclusion of other styles.

Contortion may be incorporated into other types of performances:

  • An adagio act is an acrobatic dance in which one partner lifts and carries the other partner as she/he performs splits and other flexible poses.
  • In a rag doll or golliwogg act, one or two assistants bend, shake and carry the contortionist in such a way as to convince the audience that the disguised performer is actually a limp, life-sized doll. The act often ends by stuffing the doll into a small box.
  • Contortion positions can be performed on a Spanish web, an aerial act consisting of a rope with a hand/foot loop that is spun by someone underneath.
  • Contortionists might manipulate props during their performance, for instance spinning hula hoops or juggling rings, balancing towers of wine glasses, or playing a musical instrument.

A contortionist may perform alone, may have one or two assistants, or up to four contortionists may perform together as a group. In the past, contortionists were associated almost exclusively with circuses and fairs, but recently they have also found work performing in nightclubs, amusement parks, in magazine advertisements, at trade shows, on television variety shows, in music videos, and as warmup acts or in the background at music concerts. The Ross Sisters were American contortionists most famous for their musical number in the 1940s movie Broadway Rhythm. In addition, contortion photos and digital movie clips are traded by fans on the Internet, and several web sites provide original photos of contortion acts for a monthly fee, or sell videotapes of performances through the mail.


Many myths and fallacies have been perpetuated about contortionists; most of them are because of the general public's unfamiliarity with human anatomy and physiology, while some are showman's hype that has been invented by the performers themselves or their promoters in order to make the act appear even more mysterious.

  • Myth: Contortionists apply snake oil to their joints or drink special elixirs to become flexible.
This was a popular myth in the 19th century when medicine shows hired contortionists to "prove" the effectiveness of their arthritis medicines. Their extreme bending was not actually the result of their patent medicines. Flexibility is the result of either genetics or intense physical training or, more likely, both.
  • Myth: "Double-jointed" people have more joints than most people do.
The term "double-jointed" is a misnomer and should not be taken literally, as an individual with hypermobility in a joint does not actually have two separate joints where others would have just one. "Double-jointed" simply refers to hypermobile joints that stretch farther than normal.
  • Myth: Contortionists have to dislocate their joints when they bend unusually far.
Since some loose-jointed people are able to pop a joint out of its socket without pain, it may be hard to tell whether a joint is actually dislocated without an X-ray. However, as long as the joint socket is the right shape, most extreme bends can be achieved without dislocating the joint.[1] Actual dislocations[2] are rarely used during athletic contortion acts since they make the joint more unstable and prone to injury, and a dislocated limb cannot lift itself or support any weight.
  • Myth: Contortionists can bend bonelessly in any direction.
The degree of natural flexibility of one joint in a certain direction does not determine its degree of flexibility in the opposite direction or the flexibility of other joints in the body. Contortionists can create the illusion of having boneless bodies by specializing in the skills that show off their most flexible joints with the help of their acting talent and mime skills.
  • Myth: You are either born a contortionist or you're not.
Muscle flexibility can be acquired with persistent training, as long as the shape of the bones in the joint do not limit the range of motion. There are a relatively small number of professional performers who claim they were not unusually flexible before undergoing years of intense training. Those who have naturally flexible joints, however, start out with an advantage, both in knowing that they have an aptitude for contortion and the amount of flexibility they can eventually achieve.
In reality, few contortionists have the condition. EDS is genetic, considered rare, and caused by defective collagen production. One result of this defective collagen production in individuals with Type 3 Ehlers–Danlos syndrome is loose, stretchy ligaments. (Ligaments hold the joints in place.) Since individuals with EDS can often have stretchy ligaments, they tend to be more flexible than the general population. In fact, some - but not all - individuals with EDS exhibit extreme flexibility. Another feature of EDS is spontaneous joint dislocations. The dislocations are caused by the ligaments' inability to hold the joints in place because of their stretchy nature. Dislocations can also be performed at will by some, possibly even many, individuals with the condition. The same can said for individuals with Cleidocranial dysostosis.
  • Myth: Women are more apt to be contortionists than men.
The average woman tends to be more limber than the average man, but pictures of contortionists throughout history and around the world, taken as a whole, show nearly equal numbers of males and females. Western contortionists in the late 19th century were mostly men, just as extreme flexibility in modern India is practiced mostly by men.
While the art of contortion may be more popular in Eastern cultures, the level of flexibility is more a result of individual variation and training methods than ethnicity. Even though more Asian contortionists are seen on stage, this does not mean Asians are naturally more flexible than Caucasians.

List of notable contortionists


  • Backbend/ Backfold - Any pose with an unusual degree of backward bending at the waist and/or any portion of spine while standing, kneeling, resting on the floor, or while suspended.
  • Box act (also called: body packing; enterology; packanatomicalization) - Circus act in which a contortionist squeezes his/her body into a small box or transparent container.
  • Chest stand - Any backbending pose in which the performer's chest is resting on the floor for support.
  • Dislocate - 1. [verb] To injure a joint by temporarily forcing the bone out of its normal socket. 2. [noun] In men's gymnastics, a rotating of the shoulders when performing a backwards turn on the still rings. Many skills in acrobatics appear to involve dislocating a joint, when they actually do not.
  • Durvasa's pose (also called: crane pose) - [From the mythological Indian sage, Durvasa, who supposedly assumed this pose during his years of penance] To stand on one foot with the other leg lifted in front and placed behind the neck or shoulders.
  • Elbow stand - Any inverted pose in which the performer uses only the forearms on the floor for support.
  • Frontbend - Any pose that features an unusual degree of frontward bending of the waist and/or spine, either with the legs together or parted.
  • Front split (also called: Stride split) - A split in which one leg is extended frontward and the other leg is extended backward, both at right angles to the trunk. Ideally, the hips are square facing to the front, while both legs are turned out from the hips.
  • Hairpin - A pose in which one kneels down, sits on top of the feet, and bends backwards until the top of the head comes into contact with the tailbone; it may also done with a starting position on hands and knees.
  • Headseat - An extreme backbend in which the top of the performer's head touches the buttocks; usually in a handstand or chest stand.
  • Human knot (also called: Yogic sleep; Head-foot position; Leg-head position) - A frontward bend with both ankles placed behind the neck.
  • Leg shouldering - A standing split in which the leg touches the shoulder. Can be done to the front, side, or rear.
  • Marinelli bend - [From contortionist and international theatrical agent H. B. Marinelli (1864-1924)] A head-seat with the legs extended, performed while supported only by a mouth grip at the top of a short post.
  • Needle scale - A front split while standing on the forward foot, with the torso bent downward with the hands touching the floor, while the rear leg is extended vertically toward the ceiling.
  • Oversplit (also called: Hypersplit) - Any split in which the angle formed by the legs measures greater than 180 degrees. It can be done to the front with either or both legs elevated, or in a straddle split with one or both legs elevated.
  • Passive stretching (also called: Static-passive stretching; assisted relaxed stretching) - 1. A static stretch (See: "static stretching") in which an external force (such as the floor or another person) holds the performer in the static position. 2. The practice of having a relaxed limb moved beyond its normal range of motion with the assistance of a partner. In "active stretching", in contrast, the limb is extended to its maximum range using only the muscles of that limb.
  • Pike - To be bend forward at the waist with the legs and trunk kept straight.
  • Pointe - In classical ballet, when a dancer uses special shoes (called pointe shoes or toe shoes) to dance en pointe (on their toes). The arch of the top of the foot is at its maximum when the dancer "pushes over", causing the heel of the foot to be almost directly over the toes. Difficult and often painful to learn, both men and women may benefit from studying pointe technique, however, most performance opportunities are for women only. Children do not begin to study pointe until they have years of experience and sufficient ankle strength, as well as being old enough to ensure that their bones are strong enough.
  • Rag doll act (also called: Golliwogg act) - Circus act in which a contortionist, dressed in a loose-fitting clown costume, gives the appearance of being a limp, life-sized doll, as one or two assistants bend, roll, carry and pose the "doll" and then stuff him/her into a small box.
  • Rhythmic gymnastics (also called: Rhythmic sportive gymnastics (RSG); rhythmics) - Olympic sport for one woman (or 5 women in group competition) consisting of a balletic floor exercise which demonstrates leaps, turns, balance and flexibility while moving and tossing hand-held apparatus: a ball, a rope, a hoop, two clubs, or a ribbon. Men's rhythmic gymnastics currently exists in Japan, and is gaining worldwide acceptance.
  • Rope act (also called: Spanish web) - Circus act in which an acrobat (usually female) performs exercises high above the floor while holding on to a long, vertically suspended rope, or hanging from a loop in the rope.
  • Scale - In acrobatics, when the leg is raised toward the back and may be held with one hand while standing.
  • Split (also called: the splits) - Any pose in which the legs are extended in opposite directions such that the angle of the legs is 180 degrees.
  • Straddle split (also called: side split; box split; Chinese split; cut split) - A split in which the legs are extended to the left and right, until a 180 degree angle between the legs is reached.
  • Tortoise position (also called: pancake) - A seated forward bend with the chest against the floor between the legs; the outstretched arms are also against the floor and underneath the knees.
  • Triple fold - A chest stand (See: "chest stand") in which the knees come all the way over to touch the floor, and the shins lie flat on the floor.
  • Twisting split - An exercise in which the performer changes from a split with the left leg forward, to a straddle split, and then to a split with the right leg forward, by rotating the legs, and without using the hands for support.

See also


External links

  • Serchmaa Byambaa Mongolian Contortion Coach - Student of Madame Tsend-Ayush
  • Daniel Browning Smith - Guinness book's "Most Flexible Man in the World"
  • The contortionist's handbook
  • Contortionists Unite! - Contortion community forum
  • The Contortionist's handbook
  • The Contortion Homepage
  • View Photos
  • International Contortion Convention news
  • A forum
  • Information about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
  • Some Contortionists during their Act
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