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What is Contortionism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Contortionism is a movement discipline which involves incredible feats of bending and stretching. Someone who practices contortionism is known as a contortionist; practice of this extremely physically demanding art requires extensive training and personal discipline. If you want to see contortionism in action, it is often included in acrobatic demonstrations, especially at circuses, and individual contortionists sometimes perform on their own at nightclubs and other venues.

Contrary to popular belief, one is not born into contortionism. It certainly helps to be naturally flexible, but people who want to become contortionists must train extensively. Training involves a great deal of bending and stretching to develop increased strength and flexibility, along with the development of a contortionism routine for performance. During training, contortionists often work with people who are skilled in the field to develop their own unique styles and to learn to practice their art safely.

As a general rule, contortionists are broken into two divisions: back benders and front benders. As these divisions imply, some are more flexible when they bend forwards, while others have spines which flex backward more easily. During their routines, contortionists flex and bend their bodies, often pushing them to the limits as they manipulate limbs and literally contort themselves into challenging physical positions.

During a contortion routine, a contortionist may use props or work with other contortionists for the purpose of visual interest. Some routines are designed to tell a story which may be sad or funny, while others are simply demonstrations of skill which can sometimes be quite beautiful. During a stunning routine known as an adagio, for example, a contortionist and a partner perform a series of slow moves set to music. Some contortionists are also very good at cramming themselves into seemingly impossibly small spaces.

When you watch a contortion routine, it may be hard to believe that the performer is not dislocating limbs to get into position. In fact, most contortionists try to refrain from dislocating their limbs, as this can be painful and it will stress the joint; a dislocated limb also cannot bear any weight. Instead, performers rely on incredible levels of flexibility, with very elastic joints and tendons which are kept extremely limber.

People who are interested in studying contortionism would do best to start as young as possible, laying the groundwork for a flexible adult body. The study of acrobatics is a good place to start; if the student demonstrates more interest, he or she can be sent to a special school for contortionism.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon239340 — On Jan 08, 2012

I'm a young contortionist and have to say only those who are trained by people who don't understand their limits, and people who don't take it seriously get injuries.

For years we train ourselves, stretch ourselves, and get to know our bodies. Even the slightest mistake can ruin the rest of your life. If you push yourself too hard you can tear tendons, ligaments and muscle from bone. If you don't concentrate, you can break your spine, or even end your own life. Most contortionists I know personally enjoy contortion. It feels natural to bend in those positions, and we train every day to make sure we can go even an inch further.

So, if one were to be hurt during training or a performance, they are insulting the ancient and respectable art of contortionists everywhere. We do not strain our bodies for our bodies are our greatest masterpiece.

By vogueknit17 — On Dec 10, 2011

@animegal- I have no idea how hard it is to train to be a contortionist, but I say if you think you have the talent, you should try. It seems like an exciting skill to have.

I know it's not quite the same, but it makes me think of the increased popularity in recent years of pole dancing- it's not just about striptease anymore, you can actually take classes and do it as a form of fitness. I saw some videos of a woman recently who was doing all sorts of lifts, and holding herself upside down, as part of a pole dance routine.

By animegal — On Dec 10, 2011

I've been taking gymnastics for a few years and would love to try and train to be a contorsionist, even if it was just for the occasional club performance when I am older. I am really flexible, so it wouldn't be an issue for me to improve on that.

I remember seeing some pictures of Zlata the Russia contortionist and being really impressed with the flexibility she had. I think that while I could never be that good, I certainly could hold my own. Actually, it really amazes me that Zlata The Red Contortionist has managed to garner so much fame just from being able to bend in strange positions.

By lonelygod — On Dec 10, 2011

@manykitties2 - I wouldn't worry too much about the contortionists hurting themselves during a performance or training. They actually spend years getting to the point where they are able to fit into boxes, or do some of the other crazy stuff you see. Most start training at a young age and contorsionism is one of those things that some just have a natural talent for.

I think that the circus is always going to be the place for those that have some sort of really unique skill. I wouldn't recommend a normal person trying any of those moves as you have to be really flexible to even pull off the basics.

By manykitties2 — On Dec 09, 2011

When I was young I remember going to the circus and being really freaked out by an extreme contortion that one of the performers pulled off. They made their body fit into a tiny box and I was actually really scared for the person, even though I know they train hard. The contortionist just seemed to be in a really dangerous position.

I wonder how many contortionists are injured during their training?

I honestly would love to be more flexible, but not to the extent that female contortion requires. I can't imagine doing something so painful looking. I just don't bend that way.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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