Who doesn’t like watching contortionists? How they twist and bend their bodies into unusual poses. Extreme flexibility is beautiful but achieving it is hard work. Alison Schieler gives Tibloom an insight into the bendy world of contortion.
My parents enrolled me in dance classes at my local studio in Queens, New York, when I was about 5 years old. I HATED it in the beginning. I cried my entire first lesson. But my parents encouraged me to stick it out and I ended up loving it! I even spent my whole childhood competing.
One of the disciplines I studied, and was naturally pretty skilled in, was acrobatics. This was my first introduction to tumbling and flexibility-based/contortion skills like chest stand, forearm stand, etc. I couldn’t get enough of it! My teacher exposed me to the world of circus – she particularly encouraged me to check out Cirque du Soleil – and that definitely helped set me on my contortion journey! I remember sitting at home downloading Cirque videos on Limewire and Kazaa (throwback!) and then trying to do the things I saw their contortionists do!
How did you become a professional contortionist?
Contortion definitely started as a hobby! Competing in acrobatics was purely for fun, but I knew I wanted to pursue dance professionally. When I was accepted to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, a prestigious NYC arts high school, as a dance major, I said goodbye to studio life, stopped competing, and focused full time on the professional dance training. That meant goodbye to my acrobatics classes as well. Contortion was something I continued to do on the side for fun, like performing in my high school’s talent show each of my four years, but it didn’t receive any of my real attention. I took an even bigger break from contortion when I went to New York University / TISCH School of the Arts. The conservatory schedule coupled with my academic classes left very little time and energy for anything else. At that point, dancing professionally was still the goal. Plus, I didn’t even know contortion coaches existed in NYC!
I made a friend in college who took aerial silks classes recreationally, and she encouraged me to try! I took a handful of classes sporadically but never stuck with it because of time and money. After college, I was auditioning for a dance gig that was coincidentally being run by a Cirque du Soleil aerialist. I was so inspired by how strong and seemingly perfect she was. When I found out that she was a professional aerialist, I just had to get back into it! I started taking pole and aerial classes at Body & Pole and I loved it! I even applied for their work study program so that I could have access to unlimited training. So many of B&P’s instructors were professional circus performers at that time, and when they found out I was a contortionist I began to be approached about nightlife and corporate gig opportunities. I had a very distinct “I can get paid for doing this?!” moment and just like that, I segued right back into contortion!
What it takes to be a professional contortionist?
Becoming a professional contortionist takes consistency, dedication, and patience. It also takes passion! I spent a lot of my time as a child training – I had lessons most days after school and competitions took up a lot of my weekends. Many sacrifices were made on my part, and on my parents’, to make sure I was at every rehearsal, competition, event, etc. If I didn’t love it, I would never have been able to dedicate my time and energy in this way. I loved it so much that I trained hard and even researched on my own! Beyond all this, it is also essential to have some degree of innate ability. Training will get you far, but every body will eventually encounter its own limits. Becoming a professional contortionist does require having a certain level of natural mobility.
Can you become good at contortion if you don’t start it as a child?
It is not impossible to begin training later in life and achieve extreme flexibility, but it is certainly the exception, not the rule. Children tend to exhibit much more mobility in their connective tissue and this naturally declines as we age. Loss of flexibility results as our muscles, ligaments, and tendons become weaker as we get older, making them less able to support our joints’ full ranges of motion. Flexibility can be improved at any age but generally speaking, there is much more potential to reach extreme ranges as a child. That being said, everyone’s body is different, and your journey will be a very individual experience. What works for you may not work for someone else!
What body part is the hardest to stretch?
This will be different for everybody! For me, forward folding is the most intense. There is a superficial back fascial line that starts at your forehead and runs over the top of your head to the back of your skull, down the sacrum, through the backs of your legs, and into the underside of your feet. This fascial line, for me, is so tight from all of my back bending that forward folding can feel extremely difficult!
How much do you practice?
I try to do something active every day! Whether that is pole dancing, aerial, contortion, handstands, or fitness/HIIT classes. As I get older, I’ve found it is no longer productive (for me, personally) to train contortion for hours and hours a day. So, some days I do train contortion, but I also train pole, I work on my handstands and I take HIIT classes; I am focusing my attention on cross-training to keep me strong and healthy! It is a possibility that one day, if I’d like to keep performing, I will have to move away from contortion and into another discipline that is more forgiving on my body. I am trying to lay that foundation now!
Does contortion put too much pressure on the body?
When done correctly, contortion should not hurt! Discomfort and pain are very different. I cannot overstate the importance of finding an established coach that can help you work with proper technique – this will help you progress more quickly/efficiently AND avoid injury. Injuries caused by poor technique can be serious, so always train with someone who is knowledgeable! And even if you are training safely, this discipline is inherently hard on your body. Get body work (PT, acupuncture, massage, etc.) done regularly to help keep your body healthy and functioning properly. Having a body worker you trust is extremely important. I see my physiotherapist and acupuncturist every few weeks for maintenance whether or not I am experiencing pain.
How contortion has changed you mentally, physically, spiritually?
Finding a love of dance and contortion at such a young age – having aspirations I was working toward – absolutely shaped my life. I am extremely fortunate to have found something I was passionate about, and knew I wanted to pursue, as a child. Some people go their whole lives without finding that! Dance and contortion taught me about the hard work it takes to achieve your goals; I learned early on about making commitments and sticking to them. I also came to know my body very intimately as I was constantly pushing it to the limits. I learned how to listen to it and give it what it needs.
What is the best and worst part of being a contortionist?
I absolutely LOVE performing! I live to be on a stage in front of a crowd, entertaining and showing people things they never thought possible!
Performing and coaching contortion is 100% my full-time job! I absolutely love what I do, but I guess like any job there are pros and cons. Coaching can be exhausting physically and mentally because it requires you to give. You’re giving your time, energy, and knowledge to somebody else while also physically demonstrating or assisting. But the smile on a client’s face, the excitement they feel, the first time they achieve a skill is reward enough!
Performing isn’t always glitter and smiles either – the days can be long and exhausting; your green room might be cold or small and you’re stuck in there for hours; and you might have a not-so-friendly client. Additionally, you’ll probably find yourself sacrificing personal plans to perform on holidays like Halloween or NYE. But ultimately, these are small prices to pay in my eyes to be able to do what I love.
Last but not least, what would be your advice to a someone who wants to start to do contortion?
Train safely and take care of your body!! Always learn from someone who knows what they’re doing; working safely with proper technique is more efficient and will help you avoid injuries and progress more quickly. Gaining flexibility requires consistency, dedication, and patience. It can be uncomfortable and frustrating, and it takes time. I encourage you to stick with it! Celebrate your victories, no matter how small they may seem to you. Take progress photos – seeing how far you’ve come is exciting!