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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Five Questions for a Guinness World Record-Holding Contortionist

Posted By on Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 6:30 AM


You might not guess it to watch me type, but once upon a time, I was pretty flexible. This is in large part due to a class I took (more years ago than I care to admit) at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts called Acrobatic Stretching. At the time, I didn't realize that the teacher, Professional Contortionist Leslie Tipton, was in the Guinness Book of World Records and had performed in more countries than I had been to, but I did realize that she knew what she was talking about, and that stretching hurts. When I heard recently that the former competitive gymnast and 20-year circus arts veteran was starting her own contortion school in San Francisco, I went to her studio by Ocean Beach to get the lowdown, and meet her beloved cat Bean.

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1. Obviously, I have to ask about how you made it into the Guinness Book of World Records?

The Guinness people and another contortionist invited me to try and set a record for the most contortionists in a box. The other contortionists were Daniel Browning Smith and Bonnie Morgan, and that's how I set my first record. When we set that record we went to Europe and did several TV shows. A producer from a show in Spain called and invited me to set another record. I think the technical name is "Most eggs in eggcups using the feet," but I like to add "in a handstand." While I was in a handstand I arched my back, brought my feet in front of my face, and put the eggs into the cups with my feet.

For my third record I was in London in 2007 promoting the Guinness World Records book and while I was there they asked me to attempt the record for the world's fastest time to get in a suitcase and zip it. You've gotta zip it yourself, and my original time was 27 seconds, but I've broken that three times. My current time is 5 seconds. It was 7 seconds for a long time and then when I was on Regis and Kelly they asked me to break it on TV and I did it in 5 seconds.

Carry on?
  • Carry on?
2. My ex used to always get irritated with people who would say things like "You do contortion? My cousin's a contortionist -- he can pull his shoulders out of their sockets," because she didn't feel that was a legitimate representation of contortion. How do you define contortion?

In general I say there's two kinds of contortion. There is what's considered acrobatic or artistic contortion, and then there's freak contortion. I think what bothered your ex is freak contortion. Freak contortion is designed to freak you out; to make you go "ugh."

An acrobatic or artistic contortionist wants to amaze you and do something beautiful. In the old days, acro contortion acts were called "Bender Acts," and currently within acrobatic contortion there are acts based on the handstand, and those based on dance.

3. I hear you're starting a school. What can a reasonably flexible/in shape person expect if they come to train in acrobatics or contortion with you?

I teach all levels of flexibility, but for professional contortion, they can expect a lot of hard work. They can expect to learn how to control their body and increase their mind-body connection. They can expect to train straight handstands, extreme leg stretching and extreme backbending. They can expect to learn to use their body as a tool for self expression -- once you've trained in contortion you can make choices of what to do with your body so that you can say whatever you want with it. You're not limited by having to say "I wish that I could get this leg to go there, but I can't get it to."

4. I've noticed that acro yoga has become a trend in recent years, and I've heard some less than stellar reviews of it from other circus people. What do you think about that stuff?

Since acro yoga is based on partner acrobatics, I think it's a good way for people to share yoga. As an acrobatic form, it wouldn't be considered high level acrobatics, but yoga and acrobatics have completely different outcomes as their goals -- yoga comes from a spiritual background, and acrobatics comes from an aesthetic background. I think acro yoga is a way of expanding yoga by using acrobatic principles, without losing the spiritual practice.

5. When I interview performers, I like to ask if they have a favorite gig story. Do you?

I've had a lot of great experiences, but I do have to say that a highlight of my career was when I was performing with Cirque Eloize and we opened at the International Symphony Festival in Montreal. We were in this beautiful outdoor amphitheater with a full orchestra behind us. There were 5,000 people in the audience, all dressed up in tuxedos, and we got a huge standing ovation. I performed to "The Arabian Dance," by Tchaikovsky, and after the show, someone told me that the actual ballerina who does the role in The Nutcracker was in the audience and she loved it. I remember one of those nights I stood up on my table and did all of my intro choreography, and then when I turned around to the audience, there were 10,000 people there.

Leslie Tipton will open her contortion and acrobatic school San Francisco Movement Arts in 2013. For now, prospective students can contact her for private lessons through her website, or by email at
For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Devin Holt


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