Contortionist ‘Ben Dover’ (born Joseph Späh) striking the ‘Hairpin Pose,’ early 1900s. Dover was one of the 62 survivors of the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937.
Optional soundtrack to this post.
The art of body contortion can be traced back to the 13th century BC in Greece, Egypt and Mexico until it started to decline in popularity during the Middle Ages. The start of the 20th century would bring about a revival of sorts of the ancient art of bending your body into impossible positions for entertainment in circuses and burlesque shows around the world.
In the 2016 book The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practise author Elliott Goldberg writes that contortionists performing during the vaudeville era were lumped into the category of “dumb acts” along with jugglers, dancers and acrobats as their shows didn’t involve any speaking. When it came to the appeal of watching a contortionist silently fold their limbs in ways that defy all logic, Goldberg had this fascinating insight into why people can’t seem to look away from other humans performing these incredible physical feats:
We’re delighted by the gracefulness of the movements and poses, yet we are also repulsed (or at least made uncomfortable) by the seemingly haphazard, violent and gruesome arrangement of body parts. And we’re also turned on. By violating some natural law of how bodies twist and bend contortion seems to especially transgress normative sexual practises. We’re sexually stimulated by performers seeming to strut their stuff as an invitation to kinky, delirious sex.
Some of these images may remind you of the more formidable poses in yoga like the “Sirsa Padasana” or the “Head to Foot Pose” (which looks like this) and others are amusing plays on activities such as enjoying cocktails with friends or spinning a few records on a Saturday night. That said some of the images in this post are slightly NSFW.
Burlesque dancer and contortionist Barbara Blaine, 1934.
More contortions after the jump…