When a friend I met through the yoga community invited me to join him at a contortion class, I immediately said yes because I am always down to try something new. Some people collect material stuff; I collect experiences. I thought it would be a one-off novel way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
I had no idea what to expect. I just knew that Samantha Halas, Winnipeg’s most famous contortionist, taught the two-hour class out of a church basement in St. James. When my friend and I arrived, we were guided down to a church basement that looks like a play area for children. Mats shaped like puzzle pieces cover part of the floor. There are stall bars, gym mats, fit balls, and contortion canes.
Samantha greeted us, exuding warmth and confidence. Although I had only seen photographs of her wearing exotic costumes in contortionist handstands or poses that showcased her extreme flexibility, I would have recognized her because of her big, soulful eyes, her perky chin, and her Bettie Page bangs. Her face is made for theatrical performances. She has a dizzying array of expressions, which has set her apart from other contortionists.
My face would have had an expression of relief when I surveyed the students. I was not the only middle-aged person, but many of the students are in their early to mid-twenties—and the exceptionally flexible ones seemed to all be named Anastasia. In fact, there are so many women named Anastasia that one goes by “Banana” in class.
The class always begins with a warmup with bands to open up shoulders and the back. Every two-hour class is different, but in general, Samantha focuses on splits, backbends, and contortion elbow and handstands.
I found it daunting to see one of the Anastasias warm up her back by arching so far back her head almost touched her derrière, but every single person in the class offered helpful tips and encouraged me.
During the second class I attended, we focused on splits. I have a fairly decent centre split, but when Samatha said, “Very good. Now go into oversplits off the gym bench,” I thought “What?” But I did it. She reads bodies very well and has an uncanny ability to push everyone far enough that they grow but don’t get injured.
Until I took a class, I did not appreciate how strong contortionists have to be to support their weight—and sometimes other contortionists’ weight depending on the choreography. That’s why at the end of every class, we do around 100 push-ups and intense core work.
I took my first class in December when I was still 47. Now it’s time for full disclosure: I was dating the friend from yoga and he’s much younger than me. A few weeks after I turned 48, February 19 to be exact, the relationship ended primarily because of the age difference, but we’ve remained friends. Even though I had been doing walkovers at my yoga studio for years and pushing the limits of my backbend in hot-yoga class long before I got involved with a younger man, I started to question everything. Are these activities age appropriate? Is it bad to push a middle-aged body even though it feels right? Am I having a mid-life crisis?
I turned to Samantha and she encouraged me to shake off all the doubts. “I think a surprising number of people talk themselves out of things they want because of notions of age or because they think somehow people who are good are just dealt the right cards to get there,” she said. “And although I’m sure that’s true in some cases, more often than not, we all are fighting our own battles—even the people we admire have their own battles. I love contortion because it has helped me become a person who works hard for what she wants and overcome fears and barriers though determination.”
It delighted me that a dear friend in her early 50s started going to Samantha’s beginner class after she saw my Facebook repost of the class schedule. “A handstand has always been on my bucket list,” my friend told me. She loves the classes and admires Samantha’s physical and emotional strength. (A subsequent blog will focus on her journey.)
For me, taking up contortion goes beyond the physical. Stretching past the point of comfort is a metaphor. I don’t want to live my life in a cushy comfort zone. I want to push myself to reach farther, dig deeper and get stronger.
Some of Samatha’s protégés will join Cirque du Soleil; students like me won’t ever perform, but we will grow as people because we have taken on something challenging. “People can find challenges in anything from learning how to fix a car, speak a language or dancing,” said Samantha. “If people are curious, I think they should try regardless of age. If you only compete against yourself, you will always win.”
Whenever the sexist, ageist voices start nattering at me, I think of Alicia Keys’ response to Adam Levine when he teased her about wearing some makeup after she took a bare-face stance, “I do what the fuck I want.” All women should do what they want.