The human body is far more amazing than it’s often given credit for.
While natural ability can help, anyone with a strong desire to learn and the will to practice ruthlessly can attain seemingly impossible or unnatural, awe-inspiring feats.
“It’s that ability to make your body listen to you,” contortionist Samantha Halas says. “That takes a lot of building, a lot of strength and a lot of patience.”
She’s just returned from breakfast on a day off after performing in the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s show, Manny Tuba Goes to the Circus.
Halas became infatuated with the performance art while hitchhiking across Canada, an excursion she has undertaken every summer since she was 17.
At a crossroads and feeling uninspired by the notion of going to university, Halas was introduced to contortion by a woman who had just attended a clown school in France.
“I fell in love with the idea of working on your body while at the same time making art,” Halas says. “It’s very interesting to be able to do both at once, to be both active and creative.”
Halas began her training at 22, a late start, which invited a lot of criticism and disbelief. Most contortionists begin intense and specific instruction at the age of five or six. With no experience behind her, entering a school to begin her practice proved difficult.
Eventually, Halas found an institution in China that would take anyone who could pay.
“When I was in China I would get bugged and laughed at for being bigger,” Halas says. “They thought there was no way I could do it. I got ignored by my teachers for months until they started to realize that I was getting better and a lot of that came from how badly I wanted it.”
After suffering through a misplaced rib while working at correcting her alignment, Halas went on to train in San Francisco, Mongolia and Vancouver. She followed teachers she respected and whose work she felt connected to.
Halas, now 30, is the only professional contortionist working in Winnipeg,
Apart from performing, Halas also teaches both youth and adult classes and workshops to a growing number of students. An observation she’s made through sharing the art form is how little natural ability has to do with success.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come a really long way through the strength of the human will,” Halas says. “Sometimes the most gifted and flexible people get lazy because they can show off really easily and feel good about it so they don’t work as hard.”
Halas enjoys just about every part of performing - from costumes to makeup and choreography - but is especially delighted by shock.
“Some people I find don’t like to watch because it freaks them out,” Halas says. “But I just love it when I hear people gasp.”
Published in Volume 69, Number 18 of The Uniter (January 28, 2015)