Articles

Contortionists & Flexibility: Genetic or Acquired?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ever seen a guy able to kiss his own butt? How about a girl lying on her belly literally running circles around herself? Answer is if you’ve ever been to a modern circus, then you’ve probably seen contortionists do some pretty amazing things. Contortion by definition, is the physical display of dramatic flexing, bending, and twisting of the human body out of its normal limitations. Typically, contortionists have an unusual innate flexibility that they perfect with stretching and training.

Contortionists have been around since man’s earliest civilizations. Pictorial and sculptural representations from ancient civilizations including Egypt and Greece depict a figure most commonly known as the “bender.” Contortionism also has roots in Hinduism and the ancient practice of yoga, which involves holding the body in unusual positions for long durations of time for both biological and spiritual benefits. In fact the first formal presentation of a contortionist is believed to be in the Roman circus by a yogi. Additionally, contortionism has been a tradition in China for hundreds of years. Contrary to popular belief however, this does not mean Asians are more flexible than Caucasians. It simply means that throughout history the art has been more popular in Eastern cultures than Western cultures. Although flexibility genes generally do play a part in becoming a contortionist, and many participants in the art form do come from a long line of contortionists, for the most part the art of contortion is learned by training.

Generally contortionism is divided into five subcategories: frontbending, backbending, splits, enterology, and dislocations. Front- and back- bending are relatively self-explanatory and involve severe bends at the torso in either direction. For example, a common backbending procedure known as the head-seat is when a contortionist bends their head back all the way to the butt while lying on the floor, standing, or in a handstand. Most contortionist are either front- or back- benders, but being able to do both is rare due to the fact that the spine is usually more flexible in only one direction. Splits involve any exaggerated separation of the legs from each other. Enterology is the practice of fitting the human body into a small box that appears way too small to fit an entire human being. Lastly dislocations involve separations of the joints (usually the body’s two ball-in-socket joints at the shoulders and hips) for extended reach and movement.

Often times contortionists are dismissed as being “double-jointed” or missing certain bones, however these claims are false. All human beings are born with the same number of bones and there is no such thing as a “double-joint.” They simply train their joints to the point of hyper-flexibility giving the illusion of missing bones.  Other claims such as the use of snake oil or special elixirs to achieve extreme flexibility are also bogus.

Ultimately the art of contortion is a display of distortion, deforming the human body in an athletic, humorous, weird, shocking, or sexy way.