Today we are chatting with Dani Winks a contortionist specializing in extreme back flexibility based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From a young age Dani could be found hiding in lockers or roll-on suitcases, but has since graduated into contorting into a much more exciting array of spaces!
Vanessa: Hi Dani, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, I know I am excited to meet with you and I bet the readers here at Jadore Vanessa are too.
I have seen so many great backbends that you have performed in fact poses I couldn’t even find in the contortion dictionary. How many back bending poses can you do?
Dani: No idea – I’ve never counted, and honestly there’s a lot of adjustments you can make to “one” pose to turn it into (from an audience’s point of view) 20 different poses. Take a chest stand, for example, you could have different positions for your:
- Back – rounded vertically, or leaning to the side
- Arms – flat on the ground, crossed behind you, lifted in the air
- Legs – together, wide straddle, both legs straight, both legs bent, one leg straight / one bent
- Feet – Toes pointed, Toes flexed
(and that’s honestly a pretty small subset of possible iterations – but that’s one thing I love about contortion, really minor changes, like crossing a leg, can make a pose look totally unique and different)
What do you name some of your favourite backbends? Is there a contortion library that you use a reference?
As far as I know, there isn’t much of a “library” (at least not that I’ve seen!), but like aerials, there seems to be a more-or-less common vernacular for “traditional” contortion shapes, like:
- Chest stand/chin stand
- Forearm stand/elbow stand
- Ankle grab/catch ankles
But then there are a bunch of variations on the common ones that I’ve learned by one name, heard others call them something else, or I’ve invented my own name for some that never really had a name as far as I know, like:
- Chair sit / alien bridge
- Booty cobra
- Floaty birds / flying cobra
Vanessa: It does get confusing with all the varied names, I ended up resorting to anatomical names for aerial so that the name tells you exactly where to position yourself. I guess I picked that up from my yoga teacher training. But circus tribe guys we all need to get on the same page…
Vanessa: For me, I had a huge breakthrough when I started training with Anya Shevelyuk it was there I really understood how training for contortion is very different to just simply training flexibility. Then I had two babies in the mix so progress has been back and forth recovering from each one.
Tell me who has been one of your most compelling contortion teachers?
Danni: For contortion specifically, Tracy McAskill (who has retired from teaching group classes, so I lucked out crossing paths with her when I did!) was one of my first contortion teachers and easily the reason I got hooked.
But for “circus life” in general, the whole community at Esh Circus Arts on Somerville, MA (where I trained under Tracy and others) was a life-changing experience to be a part of.
There is so much enthusiasm and skill and dedication in that studio, and I’d recommend any of their instructors in a heartbeat. (Now that classes have all shifted online I’ve “gone back to school” to take classes there!)
Vanessa: It has been hard taking circus online with COVID. I do feel very fortunate to have so many leading instructors take time out and create workshops online. It’s created a space for me to learn with minds that I wouldn’t have normally crossed paths with.
In fact I am looking forward to a shoulder stand online course. I need to get in on some of that action.
What inspired you Dani to move into contortion?
Danni: Groupon. No joke. I got a Groupon for an aerials class, had a ton of fun, looked up other classes at the studio, and saw contortion. Figured I always liked yoga so I’d probably like contortion and I was enamored from day 1.
Vanessa: Tell me were you always flexible?
Whenever people ask about this I’m always transparent that I’ve always been above-average flexible. I couldn’t always do the splits, but I was close-ish when I started (maybe ~6 inches from the ground), but I could always touch my toes to the back of my head, so I’m naturally backbend-ier than most.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I haven’t worked my butt off the last 8 years I’ve been training, and now can do a three-block oversplit and basically sit on my head.
Vanessa: Three block oversplit that is some goals their girl! I completely agree with you about working your butt off! Hard work and dedication pays off. My natural splits were around 6 inches off the ground too and now I am 2 blocks deep in my oversplit. A lot of the time we just see the end result but not all the work and progress behind it. If you want it bad enough you will get it.
Vanessa: Did you dance or do gymnastics as a child?
Danni: I did gymnastics when I was reaaaaally little, I definitely remember going to gymnastics summer camp when I was about six. I did about one session of ballet around that age but that didn’t stick. Of course now that I’m older I’m kicking myself for not having pursued that ballet training!
Vanessa: I hear you on that one, I was a baby ballerina although it stopped at around 4 yo. A lot of students think that I grew up doing ballet because I use a lot of movements for strengthening and lengthening. Plus I am a HUGE leotard fan! What’s not to love about them.
Vanessa: How did you learn the skills you need to become a contortion teacher? Trial and error! Honestly, I had a major case of “impostor syndrome” when I started teaching professionally, I had 6-7 years of training under my belt, I’d been performing professionally for years as well, but I’d never taught flexibility before.
Danni: Thankfully I did have experience teaching latin dance, so I felt comfortable being able to figure out class dynamics with a different focus. I showed up with a little sparkly notebook with my lesson plan I’d jotted out the night before for my first class and have been improving ever since.
Vanessa: What advice would you give to aspiring instructors?
Some things that I think helped me a lot (and still do) as an instructor:
- Experience teaching some type of group class in the past (zouk)
- Obsessive focus on safety (thank you Esh Circus Arts for just making that a standard part of my very being)
- Having strong opinions about teachers I’ve liked in the past – and trying to pull the pieces that made me enjoy class and feel like I was growing as a student
Vanessa: Most contortionists are either front benders or back benders? How did you master both?
Danni: Oh boy I wouldn’t say I’ve “mastered” front bending by any stretch. It is a goofy skill I can do at home when extremely warmed up, but it’s not something I’d throw in an act.
Vanessa: Really I think it would be fabulous in an act. It is actually one of my flexibility goals at the moment. I have more flexibility in my front bends rather than by back but there is no reason for me not to train both. No train no gain right?
Danni: As far as training both front and back, I’d lump “front bending” in with my other “leg day” work. I typically train 4-5 days a week, 2 days are “back days,” 2 days are “leg days” and one day is “whatever I want.”
Vanessa: I love that. What ever I want days. Those I generally just feel into my body and let it move and stretch where it is telling me too.
Vanessa: For those who are looking to become extreme front benders (coughs) what are the top 5 poses you would recommend?
Danni: Front bending is a LOT of hamstrings, and depending on the pose, also some external hip rotation.
So really anything that gets a good hamstring stretch for you – for some people that’s as simple as a standing forward fold, but for others, it’s too easy to “cheat” that pose and round the back instead of actually stretching the legs. One of my personal favorite active flexibility exercises for hamstrings are lying down PNF hamstring stretches with a strap.
For external hip rotation, good ol’ pigeon pose is a classic (working towards eventually getting your front shin parallel to the front of your mat)
And a nice beginner-friendly bend-y pose would be something like a wide-legged forward fold, trying to reach your hands through your legs. This is a fun one to work on leaning your back into the wall so you can reach a liiiiiittle bit farther without worrying about balance / falling over.
Vanessa: Great tip I have never tried forward folding against the wall and I am one clumsy peach.
Does strengthening your body for backbends protect the back?
Danni: Absolutely. Backbending is so much more than “just” the back – a large portion of the strength that goes to supporting back bending postures with control is your core and your glutes.
Vanessa: What are your three favourite backbends?
Danni: Chest Stand – because that’s so “classically contortion,” it can’t not be on this list! Also, there are so many fun ways to style it 🙂
Spider Bridge (I’ve heard other people refer to this as “Alien Pose” or “Alien Bridge), it’s weird and backbend-y and spooky and I LOVE it. People’s minds are always blown when you whip this one out.
Rainbow Bridge (aka Straight-Leg Bridge) – a pretty variation for anyone to work on (contortionist or not!), but looks pretty crazy on super backbendy types
Bio: Dani Winks is a contortionist specializing in extreme back flexibility based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From a young age Dani could be found hiding in lockers or roll-on suitcases, but has since graduated into contorting into a much more exciting array of spaces!