Hi All, it's been a minute since I wrote something of length here. However, a recent conversation with the lovely Joanna Rabon gave me some food for thought. A lot of people, even fellow circus people, have some misunderstandings around flexibility, stretching, and contortion. So I wanted to dispel some myths, point out some distinctions, and start a conversation. There are a few things I want to address: yoga/contortion, stretching/contortion, coaching of contortion.
-the inimitable Catie Brier has already made an excellent post by this same title, so please check that out! Here is my personal take, and the way I explain the distinction between contortion and yoga when I'm chatting in real life with students or potential students: Yoga is about the personal, internal experience of the practitioner. It's about how it FEELS in the body, mind, and soul. Yoga is not primarily performative, and is practiced with a goal of improving the mind/body/soul connection. Contortion is a performing art, and it is about the audience's experience viewing the seemingly effortless defiance of what we consider possible for the human body. There is overlap, for sure! I find great physical, mental, and even spiritual satisfaction in training and performing contortion, but MY experience is not the ultimate goal - likewise, some yoga poses take a great deal of flexibility and control, but are still practiced with the yogi(ni)'s experience as the primary goal.
Okay, this is a slightly finer, but similar, distinction! Stretching and flexibility training are STILL NOT CONTORTION! This, too, is because of the ultimate direction/goal. Stretching is a practice used by athletes and performing artists of all disciplines as a means to an end in their art form. We stretch to lengthen particular lines of movement in the body. A basketball player stretches to maintain health and range of movement, but they are not practicing contortion. A ballerina stretches, and may be very flexible, but they are not a contortionist, and they're doing stretching-for-ballet, not contortion. Making sense? Aerialists stretch a LOT (or at least, we should...) and may do oversplits and deep backbends on our apparatus...but this does not mean we do contortion. It means we are flexible aerialists.
What IS contortion then?
Contortion is not just being flexible. It is an art in its own right, and consists of its own extensive set of skills, vocabulary, and techniques. Originally from Mongolia, the art of contortion generally includes deep front bends and/or backbends, hand balancing, oversplits, controlled movement quality, and synchronization of choreography with music. Sometimes, multiple performers move in synchronicity, or balance on one another. Contortion has overlap with dance and other acrobatic art forms, but retains its own distinct characteristics. The most striking characteristic of a contortion act is always the high level of flexibility on display. It's important to recognize the achievement that represents, but also to take into account the core strength, coordination, breath control, and musicality that allow the flexibility to shine. In order to safely practice and perform contortion, one needs a coach who can impart all of the listed skills, in the right quantities and the right order for each individual student.
How to find a safe coach?
Training contortion safely, and properly requires extensive strength, control, balance, and yes, flexibility. The only safe way to train contortion is to work with a coach who has also trained contortion with a contortion coach (who has trained contortion with a contortion coach...). Many of the best contortionists around have trained with multiple coaches throughout their career. There is a great deal of nuance that goes into determining which students are ready to attempt which skills, or even which preparatory drills. A coach will be able to help you identify your existing strengths, and set goals that will showcase them, while also bringing your areas of weakness up to par. If you want to train contortion, I recommend starting with a general acrobatic flexibility class to build body awareness and passive (and active, if you have a good flex coach) flexibility. This is a great way to meet coaches to gauge their experience and how good of a fit they might be for you. Then begin training individually with an experienced coach, and always be open to learning from other experienced coaches when possible. Constantly be in communication with your coach about how your body is responding to the training! This is key for preventing injury! Good questions to ask a coach you are considering: How long have you been training contortion? Who were/are your coaches? Tell me about your performing experience in contortion? What do you do to help your students stay healthy while training contortion?