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Contortion (sometimes contortionism) is an unusual form of acrobatic display which involves the bending of the human body into positions that would be impossible for most people to achieve. Contortion is often part of a circus act.

In general, contortionists have unusual natural flexibility, which is then enhanced through gymnastic training.

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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). They may also pass their body through a ring or barrel while in a forward fold.
  • 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 small, knee-high box which appears to be much too small for a person to fit in, usually while seated cross-leggged with the head between the knees.
  • Dislocations of the shoulders or hips 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 lays 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.

Some special types of performances:

  • An adage act (pronounced ah-DAHZH) is a slow, acrobatic dance in which the male partner lifts and carries the female partner as she performs splits and other flexible poses.
  • In a rag doll or golliwog 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 usually ends by stuffing the doll into a small box, after which the performer gets out and takes off the costume.
  • A Spanish web is a contortion act that is performed high above the stage while holding on to a loop in a thick soft rope that is hung from the roof.
  • Other performers might manipulate props during their performance, such as spin hula hoops or juggling rings, balance towers of wine glasses, or play a musical instument.

A contortionist may perform alone, may have one or two assistants, or from one 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. 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.

Myths Many myths and fallacies have been perpetuated about contortionists; most of them are due to the general public's ignorance of 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. -- Every fully-formed person has exactly the same number of joints. "Double-jointed" is just a slang expression used to describe the appearance of a person who can bend much further than one might think a joint would allow a limb to bend. In spite of the origin of the word, it is a perfectly acceptable expression to describe a person who is hypermobile.
  • 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 impossible to tell whether a joint is actually dislocated without an x-ray. However, as long as the bony socket is the right shape, even the most extreme bends can be achieved without dislocating the joint. Actual dislocations 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: You are either born a contortionist or you're not. -- The amount of flexibility of every joint in every person varies from inflexible to extremely flexible, including every degree of flexibility in between. Also, the degree of natural flexibility of one joint in a certain direction does not determine its degree of flexiblity in the opposite direction, or the flexibility of other joints in the body. This is why contortionists specialize in skills that use the joints that are the most flexible. Muscle flexibility can be acquired, as long as the shape of the bones in the joint do not limit the range of motion. Just as there are many cases of handicapped or severely injured individuals who overcame their disability to become athletes, it is possible for almost any sufficiently motivated person, regardless of their natural flexibility, to train themself to perform a contortion skill.
  • Myth: Most contortionists have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or Marfan syndrome. -- Persons with these genetic disorders do have loose muscles and hypermobile joints and are able to do amazing tricks while standing, but they don't necessarily have the strength that is required to, for example, perform backbends while balanced on their fingertips. It is easier for a strong person to gain extreme flexibility than an extremely flexible person to gain strength.
  • Myth: Women are more apt to be contortionists than men. -- 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, and extreme flexibility in modern India is practiced mostly by men. Also, medical studies show that nearly equal numbers of "double-jointed" males and females are found when the trait runs in the family. Therefore, the fact that most contortionists in Western cultures today are female is simply a result of the current cultural preference.



India / South Asia

China / East Asia

Native Americans

Europe (to 1900)

United States (to 1900)

Era of Photography (ca. 1900 to the present)

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