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Contortionist performing Contorsionist.jpg
Contortionist performing
Contortionist Maria Efremkina performing in 2010. 001 Contortion MARIA EFREMKINA.JPG
Contortionist Maria Efremkina performing in 2010.

Contortion (sometimes contortionism) is a performance art in which performers called contortionists showcase their skills of extreme physical flexibility. Contortion acts often accompany acrobatics, circus acts, street performers and other live performing arts. Contortion acts are typically performed in front of a live audience. An act will showcase one or more artists performing a choreographed set of moves or poses, often to music, which require extreme flexibility. The physical flexibility required to perform such acts greatly exceeds that of the general population. It is the dramatic feats of seemingly inhuman flexibility that captivate audiences.



Many factors affect the flexibility of performers including age, genetics, stature, and adherence to rigorous physical training routines. Most contortionists are generally categorized as "frontbenders" or "backbenders", depending on the direction in which their spine is most flexible. Relatively few performers are equally adept at both.

Skills performed by contortionists include:

Hussein Yoga performing a combination of a cheststand and dislocation Hussein backbend.jpg
Hussein Yoga performing a combination of a cheststand and dislocation


A medical publication from 2008 suggests that long-term damage to the spine, called scoliosis, is common in long-term contortion practitioners. A study of five practitioners using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) by Peoples et al. documented limbus vertebrae, intervertebral disc bulges, and disc degeneration. Three of the five practitioners also reported back pain. [2]


This man in a trunk is an example of enterology. Man in a box.jpg
This man in a trunk is an example of enterology.

Contortion acts are highly variable; many incorporate elements of humor, drama, shock, sensuality, or a blend of styles. Contortion may be incorporated into other types of performance, such as dance and theater.

A contortionist may perform alone or may have one or two assistants, or up to four contortionists may perform together as a group.

In the past, contortionists were associated almost exclusively with circuses and fairs. More recently they have also been found 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.

The Ross Sisters were American contortionists most famous for their musical rendition of 'Solid Potato Salad' in the 1944 movie Broadway Rhythm . [4] 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.

Some loose-jointed people are able to pop a joint out of its socket without pain, thereby making it difficult to determine if a joint is dislocated without medical examination such as an X-ray. However, as long as the joint socket is the right shape, most extreme bends can be achieved without dislocating the joint. [5] Actual dislocations [6] 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.


Female contortionist shooting a bow and arrow with her feet, 4th century BC, Ancient Greece Ceramic Ancient Greece Ceramic Pelike (28738255575).jpg
Female contortionist shooting a bow and arrow with her feet, 4th century BC, Ancient Greece Ceramic

The primary origins of contortion take place in Asian traditions. In China and Mongolia, traditional Buddhist Cham dances would incorporate contortion into their movement. The success of these dances then encouraged the act to expand into other forms of performance. Contortion also found similarities and expressions in the Hindu doctrine of yoga. Throughout daily meditation, yoga practitioners work to assume many similar poses to those in the performance-based contortion. The recognition of these similarities in various practices and thoughts brought contortion into more clear and explicit light. For those in the Chinese tradition, contortion is typically performed as a feat of acrobatics, used to dazzle the audience with the unusual shapes built before them. According to Chinese historical records, early contortionism originated in China during Western Zhou Dynasty (1045-771 BC), which matured in Sui Dynasty (581–618).

List of notable contortionists

Line engraving of Joseph Clark of Pall Mall, London, "the most extraordinary Posture Master" Joseph Clark, a contortionist. Line engraving by Thornton. Wellcome V0007037.jpg
Line engraving of Joseph Clark of Pall Mall, London, "the most extraordinary Posture Master"


Example of a chest stand Contortion backbend.jpg
Example of a chest stand
An elbow stand performed by an acro dancer ElbowStand.jpg
An elbow stand performed by an acro dancer

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Acrobatics</span> Feats of balance and agility

Acrobatics is the performance of human feats of balance, agility, and motor coordination. Acrobatic skills are used in performing arts, sporting events, and martial arts. Extensive use of acrobatic skills are most often performed in acro dance, circus, gymnastics, and freerunning and to a lesser extent in other athletic activities including ballet, slacklining and diving. Although acrobatics is most commonly associated with human body performance, the term is used to describe other types of performance, such as aerobatics.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chinese variety art</span>

Chinese variety art refers to a wide range of acrobatic acts, balancing acts and other demonstrations of physical skill traditionally performed by a troupe in China. Many of these acts have a long history in China and are still performed today.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Handstand</span> Hand-balancing posture in gymnastics and hatha yoga

A handstand is the act of supporting the body in a stable, inverted vertical position by balancing on the hands. In a basic handstand, the body is held straight with arms and legs fully extended, with hands spaced approximately shoulder-width apart and the legs together. There are many variations of handstands, all of which require the performer to possess adequate balance and upper body strength.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Frontbend</span> Contortion position

A frontbend is a contortion position where the body is curved forward at the hips and spine. In an extreme frontbend, some contortionists can place the backs of their knees behind their shoulders.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kip-up</span>

A kip-up is an acrobatic move in which a person transitions from a supine, and less commonly, a prone position, to a standing position. It is used in activities such as breakdancing, gymnastics, martial arts, professional wrestling, and freerunning, and in action film fight sequences.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Split (gymnastics)</span> Extending legs in opposite directions

A split is a physical position in which the legs are in line with each other and extended in opposite directions. Splits are commonly performed in various athletic activities, including dance, figure skating, gymnastics, contortionism, synchronized swimming, cheerleading, martial arts, aerial arts and yoga as exercise, where a front split is named Hanumanasana and a side split is named Samakonasana. A person who has assumed a split position is said to be "in a split", "doing a split", or "doing the splits".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Salabhasana</span> Prone back-bending posture in modern yoga

Salabhasana or Purna Salabhasana, Locust pose, or Grasshopper pose is a prone back-bending asana in modern yoga as exercise.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Irina Kazakova</span> Russian rhythmic gymnast

Irina Kazakova is known as one of the world's most flexible rhythmic gymnasts. She specializes in contortion and rhythmic gymnastics on Russia's national team. She is trained with a personal trainer, with whom she works on her oversplits. Her most popular performance is her "Snake Dance". As a rhythmic gymnast, she has performed with the ball, clubs, hoop, and ribbons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Backbend</span> Complex movement

A backbend is a gymnastics, contortion, dance and ice skating move, where the spine is bent backwards, and catching oneself with the hands. Throughout the move, the abdominal muscles, obliques, and legs are used to steady the performer while curving backwards. Modern yoga includes some backbending asanas. Backbending can be acquired from intense training or genetics.

The upright spin is one of the three basic figure skating spin positions. The International Skating Union (ISU), the governing body of figure skating, defines an upright spin as a spin with "any position with the skating leg extended or slightly bent which is not a camel position". It was invented by British figure skater Cecilia Colledge. Variations of the upright spin include the layback spin, the Biellmann spin, the full layback, the split, the back upright spin, the forward upright spin, the scratchspin, and the sideways leaning spin.

This is a general glossary of the terms used in the sport of gymnastics.

Marinelli bend is a form of contortion posture in which the performer supports their whole body weight only by biting onto a mouth grip attached to a short post in a backbend position with their buttocks sitting on their own head. It is considered to be one of the most difficult and dangerous contortion positions, and is usually the climax during a contortion performance.

<i>Ovo</i> (Cirque du Soleil) Touring circus production

Ovo is a touring circus production by Cirque du Soleil that premiered in Montréal, Canada in 2009. Ovo's creator and director, Deborah Colker, took inspiration from the world of insects. The idea for Ovo was not to be about the acts, nor dancing, nor insects, but about movement. The movement of life permeates the entire show, with creatures flying, leaping, bounding, and crawling. Composer Berna Ceppas brought additional life to Ovo with a score inspired by the music of Brazil. Ovo means "egg" in Portuguese and represents the underlying thread of the show. Graphically, inside the logo of Ovo, is an insect. The two O's represent the eyes and the V forms the nose and antennas.

<i>Totem</i> (Cirque du Soleil)

Totem is a touring show by Cirque du Soleil that premiered in Montréal on April 22, 2010. It was written and directed by previous collaborator Robert Lepage (). Cirque du Soleil describes Totem's theme as the evolution of humanity from its primordial, amphibian state toward the aspiration of flight, taking inspiration from many of humanity's founding myths. The show was awarded the 2013 New York Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

Aleksei I. Goloborodko is a Russian contortionist. In addition to contortion, he has trained in classical and modern dance and Chinese martial arts. He has performed in a variety of arts festivals and competitions, television programs, circuses, and shows. He is currently in the Cirque du Soleil show Luzia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Christine Danton</span>

Christine Danton (Shillaker), professionally billed as "The Amazing Cristina" is an Australian contortionist who still performed her contortion act at the age of 71 in 2016. Celebrating over 50 years as a professional performer, Christine has been featured on several TV Shows, including "Just for the Record" and "Australia's Got Talent", and has worked internationally in theatre, film and circus. In the early 1960s while performing in Europe, Christine was asked to pose for the medical journal "Hypermobility of Joints", and it was those b&w images that were used in early editions of that publication. Christine performs her contortion act on a regular basis and is also in great demand as an "After Dinner Speaker".

Namaste Yoga is an instructional yoga as exercise television series produced by Namaste TV, a division of Omnifilm Entertainment, headquartered in Vancouver. In 2021, the company launched an online fitness platform and app called Movement by NM where Namaste Yoga episodes are available for streaming.

Matt Alaeddine is a Canadian-based entertainer from Edmonton, Alberta who is the world's fattest contortionist. He has travelled around the world performing in a variety of venues. After getting his start at the Edmonton Fringe Festival, he has gone on to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Canada's Got Talent, and Comedy Central's Gong Show. He holds the world records for "Heaviest Man to Touch Own Feet to Ears" and "Heaviest Man to Fit Through a Hula Hoop."


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