Originally published August 5, 2017.
We asked Amanda if she'd share a little bit about her flexibility work. She became interested in contortion 5 years ago and has been dedicated to training to, and...read on to check out how far she's come!
A lot of people have asked me how I got started with circus and contortion, and I actually really love telling them. Though circus is growing to be popular, it is still a pretty small community and people are curious.
Back in the summer of 2012 I was volunteering at a festival in Northern BC (ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art) and there were musicians, painters, performers, puppeteers, you name it, all around. The locals sometimes call it Hippy Fest. During the cleanup of the festival I found a hula hoop someone had left in a field and I picked it up and tried to use it. It fell to the ground lifelessly. One of the performers also helping out saw me and came over to show me how to use it and just like that I was caught. I made that hoop fall to the ground over and over for hours that evening, just trying to get control of it.
Since I was heading back to Edmonton for university in the fall, I went to Google and looked up anything to do with hoops so I could get more instruction and I found Firefly Theatre and Circus. I quickly signed up for aerial classes there and had the time of my life. I started with the intro class which included corde lisse, silks, and trapeze, and I moved to just the silks and corde lisse when I was past that intro course. My first teacher, Meghan, pointed out to me that I had a flexible back. I had never noticed before, so naturally I wanted to see what I could do with that.
I started taking the flexibility classes at Firefly as well, then I decided to focus on flexibility as it was something I could practice at home without a high ceiling and silks rigging. I joined up with a network on Facebook called the World Wide Splitters Network who host splits and back bend challenges where you practice certain moves for a certain number of days each week and take photos, and then professionals and coaches critique your form along the way to help you get better.
I moved to Amsterdam for a few months, mostly just touring around, but while I was living there I took several classes training with a contortionist named Angie at Dance For Your Pole who pushed me so much further than I could have gotten alone and taught me a bit more about safe practicing so that I don't get hurt without a spotter. Now that I am back in Edmonton I am training alone again currently, but I know a bit more about how to push myself safely.
I think the most important thing (and probably also the most obvious) is consistent practice. If you aren't practicing almost every day it is hard for your muscles to remember. The professionals in shows like Cirque Du Soleil will say that they practice at least three hours every day for their art. I am not quite there yet as my muscles get tired before I hit that time, but I try to practice every day. Some days I need rest so I do stretches that aren't as intense, but I still warm up all my muscles every day.
That's another thing: warm ups and cool downs are important. I am itching to go straight into deep stretches sometimes but I know that will only hurt me. Do a cardio warm up first (just a little bit is needed), then do some muscle work. Leg raises are great for lower abs. Long arm planks are great for shoulders. Elbow planks are great for everything. After you do the exercises you like to work on, then you can start going into our stretches slowly. The cool down is hardest, I find. After doing the deep back bends I kind of just want to lay down. NOT A GOOD PLAN. If you don't do your cool down you WILL be sore the next day and possibly more. I made that mistake a few times and ended up with low back pain and not being able to stretch that next day without it hurting. Bending forward to counter the back bends is good, but also lay on your back and bring your knees to your chest. Put your arms straight out to the side and let your knees fall to one side, twisting your spine. Do the same to the other side. Keep your arms straight out and your shoulders flat on the floor. The gentle twisting helps to relax your back to its natural shape after pushing so hard to bend it. If this isn't enough, do the same thing with legs straight as you twist.
There were (and are) several barriers I had to work on overcoming during my training. With stretching, at first you don't really think about it being something you would need to do strength training for, but it is definitely something I needed to work on. Have you ever tried to do a waterfall back bend from standing and then stand back up again? It takes a lot of muscle to stay steady and to pull yourself back up! I was so excited the first time I succeeded at standing back up again after dropping into a back bend. I did it as many times as I could in a row so I could get used to the feeling and what muscles were being used, so that I could make those ones stronger. With the chest stand or scorpion pose, you need those same muscles but they need to be used backward, bringing your legs up over your head. That's what I am working on currently (and it is HARD). Once there in a chest stand, you need your side muscles to keep you balanced in one spot. I am still working on that part as well, as I am quite shaky in that pose.
One big thing for me is confidence. I was practicing aerials for a few years and I was moving slowly, so it was hard for me to keep being confident because I am used to picking up skills quickly. Circus was a challenge and I wanted to be better. It has taken me quite a while to get the confidence, but because I never gave up, I went from barely being able to push myself up into a regular back bend to this, yesterday: being comfortable on my elbows in a back bend, with my toes standing on my fingers, and I plan to go further still.