If you've had the opportunity to catch a Cirque du Soleil performance, one of the first things you might notice is that this ain't your grandma's tent carnival.
In case the steep price of admission didn't give away that modern circus-type shows have set their sights on grander displays than the circuses of years past, the lush sets, exotic costumes and death-defying contortions and acrobatics should do the trick. There's no bearded lady ready to guess your weight at the MGM Grand, where Cirque's KÀ has been running since 2006. In her place, you'll find performers twirling through the air with little or nothing to hold on to, using cartwheels and handstands to navigate human-sized hamster wheels as they circle the stage. Then they perform a final "battle" scene martial-arts style, while suspended upside down from as far as 90 feet (27 meters) off the ground [sources: Leach, Vegas Chatter].
Yet while the circus arts definitely have evolved from the days when P.T. Barnum and the like crisscrossed the country by wagon and train with a jumbo-sized elephant, modern performances remain largely rooted in some of the skills and techniques developed as far back as ancient Egypt and China and during the Roman Empire. That includes activities like juggling, acrobatics, rope dancing and even the work of clowns [source: PBS].
To this day, body contortionists remain one of the most stunning performers of the circus arts. The ability to twist oneself into a human pretzel and move as if you were made of rubber isn't just a fun cocktail party trick or a good way to make sure that you didn't miss any spots with the suntan lotion. It's a specialty that dates back centuries. Paintings and sculptures from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt featured depictions of contortionists [source: Simply Circus]. And Mongolia has a rich history in the art, going back to the 17th century. In fact, a Mongolian team has petitioned UNESCO to include contortion on its intangible heritage list [source: Jacob].
What Is Contortion?
Contortionists are not acrobats. Well, a performer could be both a contortionist and an acrobat, but these are two different disciplines of circus art. Contortionism is a form of ultra-flexibility that allows a performer to bend in ways that seem completely unnatural and – often – highly uncomfortable. It's certainly helpful in acrobatics, a type of performance in which participants use ropes, high wires and other suspensions to accomplish feats of balance and aerial maneuvers. But while contortion focuses on the body's ability to bend and flex, acrobatics generally center on balancing and motor skills, like those necessary to walk a high wire or navigate a trapeze swing [sources: National Circus School Montreal, Aerialists.org].
Contortionists generally fall into one of three categories. Front benders, as the name suggests, are those who flex their spines forward in a number of strange and exotic ways. That includes wrapping the feet behind your head and walking around on your hands like some kind of human crab. In other words, a front bender has a unique ability to tell whether those pants do indeed make his or her butt look big [sources: National Circus School Montreal, Simply Circus].
Back benders, on the other hand, are generally considered the more artistic segment of the contortion community. They account for the "serious" portion of any contortion display, while front benders often fill the "funny man" role. One common back-bending exercise involves a contortionist lying on his or her chest with arms stretched above the head, slowly bending the legs backward until the toes touch the ground near the hands. Another move starts with the contortionist standing on his or her feet and slowly bending back until the hands touch the ground [sources: Simply Circus, Kanade].
Dislocation performers occupy a third, less prevalent category of contortionist. These are the Gumby-type folks who can slip certain bones in and out of their natural locations for fun [source: National Circus School Montreal].
Whether it's walking around on all-fours with your chest to the sky or pulling your legs behind your head to check your own diaper, contortion work looks both difficult and painful. Those who practice the art form, however, say that just about anyone can learn to do it with the right training [source: Simply Circus].
For beginners, the idea is to gradually increase flexibility through various training exercises. Those who are new to contortion may want to begin with a set of simple stretching exercises like the ones from gym class for a month or so in order to limber up a bit. Yoga and Pilates classes are also good ideas, as these types of exercise will help increase both strength and flexibility while easing your body into life as a contortionist. Increase your yoga and Pilates sessions over time until you feel ready to take the next step toward contortion [source: Simply Circus].
Before starting any serious contortion exercises, it's important to begin each session with a warm-up, consisting of some running and light stretching exercises. The point is to get the body moving and limber without pushing the muscles [source: Simply Circus].
The actual exercise regimen that a contortionist undertakes varies based on whether he or she is a front or back bender. The goal is to start with simple exercises and push the body over time. A front bender, for example, may start by standing up straight and then touching his or her toes. As time goes on, the person can add wrinkles to the exercise by grasping the ankles and, later, reaching through the legs and touching as far back as he or she can reach. Similar progressions with splits and twist exercises are also common [source: Simply Circus].
A back bender might start by facing his or her back to a wall or piece of furniture and using it as a brace while bending backward slowly over time. Or the contortionist may try a variation of the exercise, lying with his or her chest to the ground and using the hands and arms to help bend backward while keeping the hips to the floor [source: Simply Circus].
Careers in Contortion
For those who want to take contortion to the next, professional level, there are at least a few options. The good news is that they don't all entail waiting around for the big top carnival caravan to blow through town so you can run off with the yak woman and the boys who operate the Tilt-A-Whirl.
Contortionists looking to work in circus and related fields may very well want to consider formal training. At Cirque du Soleil, for example, performers are required to have professional circus arts training or to show that they can perform at the professional level if self-taught. You can get professional training at a circus school such as the National Circus School Montreal. In addition to allowing a performer to develop a particular art form, circus arts training programs expose students to a wide range of other disciplines in order to provide a basic level of training across a broad spectrum of performance styles.
It's important to keep in mind that working in a circus-type job isn't all sequined outfits and free elephant rides. It's a lot of work and usually entails long stretches of time away from home. It also probably won't make you rich, unless you turn out to be the long-lost cousin of the Flying Wallendas. Performers can expect to bring in about $300 a week at the entry level, while those who are obtain a feature slot in a show can earn up to $70,000 a year, plus free room and board [source: KidzWorld].
Of course, if you dig folding yourself into bizarre positions, like to travel and don't mind the smell of animals, life under the big top could be the right thing for you. Sure beats working in an office.
Author's Note: How Contortionists Work
It is my personal and humble opinion that the human body has its limits and they should be respected. Sure, I applaud folks who push the boundaries of human achievement, whether that's through a record-breaking performance or an astonishing feat of the mind. The thing is, I'm pretty sure there's a reason I can't put my feet behind my head: It's not really necessary.
- Aerialists.org. "History of Aerialism, Acrobats & Cirque Performance." April 28, 2010 (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.aerialists.org/history-aerialism-acrobats-cirque-performance/
- Jacob, Pearly. "Mongolia: Contortionists Aim for UNESCO Recognition." Eurasianet. Aug 23, 2013 (Feb, 22, 2015) http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67427
- Kanade, Shrinivis. "Contortion Backbend Training: Learn How to do a Backbend." Buzzle. Sept. 23, 2011 (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.buzzle.com/articles/contortion-backbend-training-learn-how-to-do-a-backbend.html
- KidzWorld. "Becoming a Circus Performer." (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.kidzworld.com/article/4481-becoming-a-circus-performer
- Leach, Robin. "Cirque exec discusses reintroduced Epic Battle Scene in 'Ka' at MGM Grand." Las Vegas Sun. Dec. 7, 2014 (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.lasvegassun.com/vegasdeluxe/2014/dec/07/cirque-exec-discusses-reintroduced-epic-battle-sce/
- Fit & Bendy Modern Contortion. "Stretching for Adults Part I: A Modern Approach to Contortion Training." Nov. 19, 2014 (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.fitandbendy.com/blog/2014/11/19/stretching-for-adults-part-i-a-modern-approach-to-contortion-training
- National Circus Montreal. "Circus Arts Disciplines." (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.nationalcircusschool.ca/en/artiste/circus-arts-disciplines
- PBS. "History of the Circus." (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.pbs.org/opb/circus/in-the-ring/history-circus/
- Simply Circus. "Chapter 2- Stretches." (Feb. 22, 2015) http://community.simplycircus.com/tutorials/acrobatics/contortionistshandbook/chapter_2.htm
- Simply Circus. "Introduction to practicing contortion." (Feb. 22, 2015) http://community.simplycircus.com/tutorials/acrobatics/contortionistshandbook/introduction_to_practicing_contortion.htm
- Vegas Chatter. "KA's Battle Scene Returns A Year And A Half After Tragic Accident." Dec. 4, 2014 (Feb. 22, 2015) http://www.vegaschatter.com/story/2014/12/4/165550/885/vegas-travel/KA%27s+Battle+Scene+Returns+A+Year+And+A+Half+After+Tragic+Accident