On a dingy back street in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, girls as young as five spend half their school day twisted like a pretzel—they are studying to become contortion artists. This age-old practice has a long history in Mongolia and offers students a great deal of upward mobility and prestige, not to mention a rigorous lifestyle. Since the end of communism in 1992, this ancient practice of dance has been modernized to meet contemporary tastes; however, it has never lost its mesmerizing level of skill and movement. In a country where the weather is harsh and the living rough, the art of contortion provides a great deal of national pride, and it has cultural significance tracing back hundreds of years. 

An Ancient Tradition

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Mongolia, a sparsely populated country wedged between China and Russia, is home base for some of the most accomplished contortionists in the world. Beginning in the 13th century, this form of entertainment was favored in the palace of Genghis Khan and had a widespread reputation as being a surreal form of dance and movement. Known as the Uran Nugaralt, or artistic bending, it has traditionally been performed by women and young girls.

A Sense Of National Pride

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Although contortion is the most renowned form of movement in Mongolia, dancers often perform in various capacities, using their art as a way to enhance celebrations and elevate national pride. Performers who have the necessary strength and flexibility for contortion are in high demand and are often scouted by international theatre producers. The Mongolian people relish the idea of sharing their national culture and pride with the world, and enjoy demonstration their tremendous poise and courage despite the sometimes rough conditions of life in their country.

A Hard Goodbye

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As long as a student is unusually flexible and determined to work through hours of tears and frustration, the contortionist school does not discriminate based on class. Many of the students who attend are quite poor and must leave their rural homes behind if they want to pursue this challenging dream. While training at the school, girls must commit to working hard and visiting their families only on holidays—and at their own expense. Some of the less fortunate ones will only make it home a few times a year if they are lucky.

Mongolian Contortion School

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Because contortionists must bend their bodies in unheard of ways, their years as performers are limited. Girls begin their careers at the tender age of five, either having been recruited by the school or enrolled by their families who are eager to see them succeed. Beginning students are often terrified of the rigorous environment and demanding physical exertion, not to mention the limited food and strict authority. They are not used to such grueling physical activity and often spend the first couple months of their education in tears.

Upward Mobility

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Carving out financial success is not easy in Mongolia, particularly if you're a woman. The art of contortion offers students the chance to make something of themselves as performers, travel widely, and earn much needed money to support their families. Mongolian contortionists are considered the best in the world and are recruited by prestigious exhibitions and circuses, win distinguished awards, and considered to be some of the most esteemed members of the dance profession. They not only twist themselves into impossible shapes, but they demonstration tremendous precision, grace, and poise while moving fluidly to traditional music.

A Drastic Education

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Contortionists should not be confused with acrobats. This particular form of dance requires a level of flexibility that goes beyond ballet or gymnastics, and forces the body to bend in unnatural and incredibly painful ways. Students have been known to have 300 pushups as a "homework" assignment and spend years stretching their muscles, joints, and ligaments to the breaking point. Given the fierceness of the practice, it's critical that instructors are qualified and knowledgable.

Teachers Need Training

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Mongolian contortion is globally competitive and has become increasingly popular among girls and families looking to improve their status. While this is good news for enrollment, it can be a problem when it comes to quality control. With the recent bump in interest also comes the need for a larger number of qualified and dedicated instructors who understand best practices and methods. A shortage of such teachers can lead to serious injuries for students and corruption within the field.

A Long Way From Home

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A typical girl enrolled in the contortion school does so without the protection or support of her family. While parents and siblings are often very proud and encouraging, they are rarely able to live nearby or provide any support through communication or affection. Even though students often find meaningful friendships and communities amongst their peers, the girls are all very young and inexperienced. Without the tenderness of their own families, the constant physical demands and stress of performance often leave young students despondent and lonely.

Rigorous Curriculum

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Although Mongolian culture sees no problem with extreme bending at a young age, many medical professionals disagree. When the boundaries of flexibility are severely pushed, hyperextension of the neck and back is quite common and can lead to nerve damage, Osteoarthritis, cervical and lumbar issues, joint arthropathy, and overall spinal damage. Many women who participate in contortion at a young age, will over an extended period of time find that their quality of life is reduced through the ongoing physical taxation. While this traditional practice offers much pride and promise to its students, there are serious and well-documented physical dangers.

The Promised Land

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If a student can withstand the challenge of a contortionist's education, they will find many open doors on upon completion. Aside from numerous traveling circuses, dance troupes, and competitions, there are the big productions in sparkling places, like Singapore and Los Angeles, that always need contortionists. Famous outfits like Cirque du Soleil and Vegas' renown show O employ a great number of performers from Mongolia and are able to offer them the stage they've always dreamed of, full of glamor and prestige.