The Art of Contortion - The Doorway to Physical Fitness
By: Ted and Jean Ardini
Acrobatics Magazine - Dec/Jan 1971 - Vol. 18, No. 3
Unfortunately in Australia, as in many countries a Contortionist is looked upon and regarded as some sort of freak. The most popular theory of the uninformed is that all contortionists are unfortunate enough to be born double jointed, this of course is ridiculous. We have consulted leading members of the Medical profession on this subject, and they assure us there is no case on record of a child being born with a double jointed spine, and even if the future such an unlikely birth should occur the child would certainly not be a contortionist. This widespread ignorance is detrimental t our profession, for it is impossible for the public to appreciate the high degree of physical fitness, muscular control and flexibility of the human body that must be attained by the performer to make it possible for him or her to present in an artistic, graceful, attractive and effortless manner a demonstration of near perfect physical fitness. But when the audience realizes the performer they are watching is like themselves a perfectly normal human begin that has succeed in his or her chosen profession, like those of any other only because they have studied and worked hard, then and only then will the contortionist be fully appreciated.
As contortionists we are frequently asked many questions regarding our profession, a few of the most oft repeated are: Do you rub your body with a special oil? Were you soaked in a bone softening chemical when an infant? Of course you were born like that, it would be impossible for me to do it. Is it true you drink a pint of a special Chinese oil every day? Do you sleep in an oil bath? etc. For the benefit of those interested, the answer to all the above questions and others too numerous and ridiculous to mention is DEFINITELY NO.
We have never ceased to wonder at the widespread interest and amount of money spent, and invested in so called physical culture and training. It is taught in schools, lavishly appointed gymnasiums, clubs and colleges, there are also many widely advertised mechanical devices available to the public, that are claimed to assist in body building and by following the instructions one may develop enormous muscles. Although this may be true we also wonder just how many people realize the only true and natural form of physical exercises are those practiced by a contortionist. Contortion work is like no other form of exercise. It develops every part of the human body, does not build unsightly piles of useless muscle that eventually becomes hard (or muscle bound) and places absolutely no strain on the heart.
For proof of this statement one has only to observe any number of the animal kingdom. Every animal large or small exercises every day, they instinctively know the secret of a long and healthy life depends on a flexible spine. They also know if any part of the body is not continually used it will eventually cease to function. If one takes the trouble to watch their domestic pets (cats and dogs) you will be surprised to note the number of times the animal stretches its limbs and back. Not only animals but birds and reptiles exercise many times each day, by stretching and flexing their bodies. A recently conducted medical survey has proved beyond doubt a contortionist not only has great resistance to every day complaints and disease their general health is excellent and they live considerably longer than folks in any other profession.
The only qualifications required to become a contortionist is to be as fortunately most of the human race are born, a normal healthy human being. No expensive equipment, tools of the trade to purchase or maintain, for contortionists are born with all the equipment and assets required to follow their profession, a healthy mind and body, it is only necessary to maintain these natural assets in first class condition. Yes, if you are under 26 years of age and your ambitions to become a contortionist, there is no reason why you should not. Of course it must be realized like any other profession requiring a high degree of physical fitness and training, it will not be easy, one must be prepared to spend many hours each day practicing, commencing with elementary exercises, then graduating to simple movements and eventually to the most advanced and seemingly impossible perfection attained by the dedicated artiste.
Although we would not advise any over the age of 26 years to take up contortion as a profession, folk of all ages can certainly derive considerable benefit and improve their general health by practicing a few elementary and simple contortion exercises. After devoting as little as five minutes each day to stretching and breathing exercises for a period of only six months you will be amazed at the improvement in your health. The Ardinis Studios have produced some of the world's foremost performers, the age of our pupils range from 2 to 60 years. The classes are divided into two sections, those wishing to become professional contortionists, posturers, equilibrists or acrobats, their ages ranging from 2 to 26 years. And those who are interested only in improving their physical fitness, ages ranging from 27 to 65 years, it is interesting to note 90% of those who decide to take up this form of exercise become very interested, at least 60% achieve a high standard of efficiency and all improve their physical condition, 10% usually attend only one lesson, the percentage of drop-outs after taking three lessons is less than 1%.
There are very few physical acts in Australia today, and each year their numbers are decreasing not because there is no demand for the type of act, like all commercial products the market is governed by supply and demand, and the demand certainly exceeds the supply. There are two reasons for this. First, for reasons known only to those in authority it is exceedingly difficult, almost impossible to obtain a permit for a child under the age of 16 years to perform professionally as a contortionist or acrobat, therefore not only the parents of children wishing to take up the profession but the children themselves who usually commence training at about six or seven years of age, naturally become bored and begin to think their training period will never ed, for nine or ten years is a long time to spend at a studio with no return or appreciation of one's effort, especially when many of these clever and healthy children are of professional standard, anxious to appear in public, and irrespective of their age by so doing their act, all of which can only be acquired by experience in front of an audience.
Surely those in authority must realize people in our profession cannot gain this experience too early. Because our young and talented artistes are denied the right to do so, many are lost to the profession. It must also be realized when public appearances are made at an early age the child does not feel self conscious or suffer from nervous tension, but when a 16 year old steps out all alone in front of an audience for the first time, naturally they are self conscious and under terrific nervous tension. Unfortunately this pre-appearance tension usually continues for some considerable time. If folks are concerned about the welfare of children working at an early age and the effect it may have on the child either mentally or physically in later life, let us assure you, children engaged in our profession receive far more care and attention than the average child, and by virtue of their early training both physically and mentally even if through circumstances beyond their control, or from choice, they leave the profession, they find no difficulty in quickly learning and successfully adapting to any occupation they may choose.
In all countries throughout the world millions of people each year attend the circus, everyone a witness to the truth of the above facts, for if they were to enquire they may be surprised to find the majority of artistes they see, applaud, yes and envy, for who among these vast audiences would not like to be capable of the feats of strength, endurance, and mental alertness of these highly skilled men, women, and children, who provide the evening's entertainment, many of whom can trace their ancestors back many generations in the profession, surely this fact alone is sufficient to remove all doubts and convince the most skeptical critics. Our profession is one of the most highly skilled arts, and is certainly in no way detrimental either physically or mentally to the artiste.
The second reason for the shortage of contortionists in Australia is lack of confident instructors for it must be understood although one may be an excellent artiste, he or she may lack the qualifications and knowledge required to instruct others, not only must the instructor have many years of practical experience as a contortionist, he or she must be endowed with and abundance of patience, understanding and a thorough knowledge of precisely what is involved, and the effect each exercise and movement has on the human body, under no circumstances should the pupil be forced beyond their capabilities. There is no quick do it yourself, or crash course for contortionists. Just as one must learn the alphabet before one can read. The contortionist must begin with A-B-C each forward step must be taken gradually and in correct order.
The artist who paints a masterpiece can work only on one canvas at a time, so the contortion instruction must take each pupil individually, for he or she is working with the most precious of all raw materials, the human body and mind, there is no margin for error. As in all professions, involving the physical well being of the pupil a little knowledge can be very dangerous therefore extreme care must be taken in the selection of a competent instructor. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to teach unless qualified to do so, for this reason it is not our intention to explain either our method of instructing or what steps are necessary to produce a first class artiste. However, by explaining just a little of what is involved the reader and those interested in taking up the profession will realize the importance of receiving the correct instruction. The vertebral column must be stretched to maximum possible hyperextension, this must be accomplished gradually and evenly throughout the spine, by making slight increments at each disc space over the normal, the whole adding up to a great increase, taken section by section there is no great increase in any one region, i.e. it is a cumulative process. Extreme care and caution must be taken to avoid dislocation.
The abdominal muscles and many others must also be stretched far beyond normal but the thoracic cavity must remain in shape. Naturally this process increases the height, a first class artiste may be several inches taller than he or she would be had they chosen any other profession, this increase in height is in no way detrimental to the individual in fact it is of great benefit, as previously stated the secret of a long and healthy life is a flexible spine, for as long as one continues to practice their art, each vertebrae will remain spaced, and by so doing prevent the formation of acids and crystals that poison the system. However, if the exercises are not continued after retirement the spine soon returns to normal, and the artiste will return to normal height. Sorry to disillusion the skeptic but we are all are people, quite normal people who enjoy our work, and the pleasure it brings our audiences.
Note from the CHP:
The CHP does not necessarily endorse all opinions in every article. The authors of the CHP believe that children should be allowed to perform ... but not for profit. The main reason this article was included on the CHP is to illustrate the view that contortion training is one of the best forms of exercise.