Photo by Haley Bell
“She doesn’t drop her butt anymore, I’m so proud.”
It’s not everyday that keeping your butt high in the air would be a compliment — or something to even be proud of — but to senior Eliza Wetz, hearing professional contortionist Ariana Ferber-Carter announce this “huge improvement,” made her day.
Among the upside-down performers suspended on purple silks and metal rings in Lucia Aerial Performing Arts in Town Center is Wetz. Letting gravity do its work and pull her into her right splits, Wetz is in the middle of her weekly contortion session.
Every Monday at 5 p.m., Wetz practices her natural talent of contortion — a sort of ultra-flexibility that allows a performer to bend in ways that, to an ordinary person, seems completely impossible and highly uncomfortable.
“I’ve always been just really naturally bendy in my back,” Wetz said. “I don’t really know how I found [contortion] to be honest, but I think it started when I did gymnastics.”
After an ankle injury her freshman year on the gymnastics team, Wetz took a break from all the bending and stretching until a year ago, when she discovered Lucia. She went through different classes at Lucia such as lyra, silks and deep stretch/conditioning before finding her niche in contortion. She connected with her current teacher, Ferber-Carter, and transcended past the beginner moves and into more complicated, advanced positions.
“When I first started, I could do a lot of things that normally you have to wait to do, so I had this moment of ‘oh I’m pretty good at this,’” Wetz said.
Just a year after stepping onto the blue mats in front of the glass mirrors of Lucia, Wetz is already determined to show that her innate talent isn’t just a phase or a hobby. She plans on taking her two passions — nursing and contortion — and combining them in the future.
“I am going to UMKC or Penn Valley to get a nursing degree and then my boyfriend and I are planning on moving up to Canada and go to the circus school there,” Wetz said. “I love both things [too much] to only do one.”
With Carter-Ferber’s tight schedule, Wetz is only able to schedule one 30 minute session a week. She uses up every second of the half hour to try and reach her goal or turning contortionism into a career. She arrives to Lucia as early as possible to begin her routine of stretches: leg muscles, splits then back muscles — in that order everytime.
After extensively warming up her muscles, Wetz dives into one of the many bizarre positions she can contort her body into. Starting in a back-bend, she slowly moves her hands towards her feet. With one last inch of her fingers, Wetz is able to secure her hands around her ankles — she is in a perfect semi-circle.
While flexibility is critical to becoming a skilled contortionist, performers need more than that to make it in the performing world, according to Ferber-Carter. Enjoying the acrobatic practice and fully committing to putting in the necessary work and conditioning is just as crucial. In every one of their sessions, Wetz shows all of the traits of a gifted contortionist.
“Natural flexibility is secondary to all the other skills you need,” Ferber-Carter said. “You need that, but just that isn’t enough.”
Like any sport, contortion has its health benefits and precautions. The deep stretching can be a huge stress relief, but for Wetz, the “intense yoga” can sometimes result in a pain and uncomfortable feeling that pushed her natural stretching abilities to their limits.
“When we get to the point where I’m doing something well and then [Ferber-Carter] says ‘hey let’s push you a little farther,’ that is when it gets really uncomfortable,” Wetz said. “There are times when I don’t know how I am going to make my back bend anymore, but I am always able to.”
Despite the painful “crunching” of her back as she bends it back and all the repetition of her least favorite ab exercises, Wetz always comes back to class each week, ready to work just as hard because of the strong relationship she has built with her teacher. And to make Wetz enjoy the hard twisting and bending of her body, Ferber-Carter has made sure to balance out all the intense training and physical strain on Wetz body, with a fun, stress free environment.
During each session, Ferber-Carter reveals a new story about her years traveling with Circus Smirkus and in return, Wetz is able to take her mind off of her depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD and anxiety. Combining Ferber-Carter’s positive attitude and playful banter helps her focus only on what she wants to — getting better at contortion.
“[Ferber-Carter] is always so peppy and happy,” Wetz said. “She knows how to push me in the good ways and the pain never deters me from coming back. If you are feeling really sad, you can go to Lucia and [Ferber-Carter] can push you and it’s a healthy way of hurting yourself.”
Wetz has found that most people don’t know what contortionism is; she finds it hard to explain the curling and stretching while doing justice to all the time and effort she puts into it. But one person who knows every detail of each of her sessions and actually knows what a ‘cobra’ and ‘pretzel’ are, is her boyfriend Ben Soderstrom.
“Contortion in general takes so much time and effort to be good at,” Soderstrom said. “It’s all bending and twisting your body in ways that plenty of people couldn’t fathom. Each week she takes it a little further and it’s ambitious. I love that she enjoys it.”
Through all the feelings of tearing muscles and stretching tendons, a friendship has been created that is strong enough to make the pain all worth it to Wetz. She knows that Ferber-Carter will always have her back, whether it be holding her up during a bridge or helping her get through a hard day.
“Contortion is really hard, so if you don’t enjoy your time training or the people you are training with it’s not gonna go well,” Ferber-Carter said. “It’s too miserable to do it in a way without humor. You need that stuff to balance out the rest of it because it is so challenging.”