Louisiana-born Lance Centanni-Sachs started studying Mongolian contortion at the age of 23. Now at 29, he is preparing for his second trip to Mongolia as part of a documentary project to trace the roots of this traditional Eastern practice, which is enjoying burgeoning popularity in the West.

Contortion classes are pretty easy to find in the Bay Area; most are affiliated with a circus or acrobatic organization like AcroSports or Trapeze Arts. In 2007, Lance decided to enroll in a Mongolian contortion class at the San Francisco Circus Center. He had just returned to San Francisco, after spending two years living as a Buddhist monk in India and Nepal. Feeling lost and eager to reconnect with his body, he was curious about this extreme physical practice of backbends, splits, and gravity defying poses. At his first class, he met his teacher, Serchmaa Byamba.

Serchmaa trains Sheila Mandell, one of her American students.

Serchmaa is just one of a diaspora of highly skilled contortionists from Mongolia now settled in the United States. She began her training at the age of 8 in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. To be accepted into the Mongolian State Circus’s contortion training program at Ulaanbaatar is an honor, and each year, hundreds of young girls around the ages of 5 to 7 travel to the capital in hopes of being selected. Making use of the softness of their ligaments and bones, these girls are trained to bend forward and backward in ways that seem impossible for the spine. (There are some boys who train to become contortionists, but the majority are girls.) If they complete their years of rigorous training, a career as a contortionist promises significant income to the girl’s family, as well as opportunities to start a new life in another country.

Serchmaa performed and toured with the Mongolian State Circus, eventually leaving her homeland to settle in San Francisco with her husband in 1998. She now performs as a freelancer and has appeared on talk shows and movies including “Minority Report”  and “Pursuit of Happiness.”  (Currently Serchmaa teaches contortion classes at Sons of Cayuga.)

Part sport and part spectacle, Mongolian contortion is rooted in Buddhist meditation practices and Mongolian dance. Mongolian Buddhist monks believed that the flexibility and openness of the mind was directly connected to the body, and so they trained their bodies in order to train their minds. The monks’ poses and twisted shapes imitate and are named after animals and natural phenomena-all part of the region’s cultural aesthetic, as Mongolians are historically nomadic people with strong connections to the land.

Mongolia’s political history is closely tied to that of its neighbors’ and has also influenced the development of contortion. After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared its independence from China. Under the influence of its Russian and Soviet neighbors, the Mongolian People’s Republic became a communist regime. Closed to outsiders until the fall of the communist government in 1990, the touring Mongolian State Circus was one of the few contacts Westerners had with this mysterious far-away land prior to the country’s independence. It was during this time that a circus culture developed around the art of contortion, drifting the practice farther away from its spiritual roots.

However, it was the spiritual elements of contortion that inspired Lance to delve deeper into his practice with Serchmaa. He describes their relationship:

I just hoped to gain control of my body, to challenge myself, to learn discipline and patience through it. In the beginning, I thought my physical goals wouldn’t be much, maybe do the splits or something. The first day I met Serchmaa, she was really delightful [and was wearing] the best bejewelled boots. We talked a bit about Buddhism and yoga and [since then] I have…consistently been training with her. She really gives the sense of wanting to see her students succeed in their goals [and] push[es] them to a level they didn’t think they could achieve. Contortion becomes not just a performance art but is also a development of patience, discipline, focus and effort. I personally changed in my habits and life through training with her. I’ve seen this happen with other students, and I think this comes about out of respect for her and the amount of care and time she puts into us all.

Founded by Mongolian filmmaker Tsogtbayar Namsrai (Serchmaa’s husband) and San Francisco–based photographer Faern, the Clean Socks Project aims to preserve the traditional training and performances of Mongolian contortionists, as well as document the translations of these traditions as they make their way to Western societies-San Francisco, in particular. Lance’s adoption of contortionism as both a male and an adult is just one example of how the art form is expressed differently in the US.

The timing of this documentary is crucial. The contortion masters in Mongolia are getting up in years. Serchmaa’s teacher, the legendary contortionist Madame Tsend-Ayush, passed away in 2006. Known for her strict methods, Madame Tsend-Ayush had a discerning eye for talent and hand-picked her pupils. These girls, now successful women, are settling far away from Mongolia, performing with groups like Cirque du Soleil, and teaching children and adult students whose goals rarely include “professional contortionist.”  Many of Serchmaa’s students apply their contortion skills to their aerial circus arts, dance, yoga, and other personal health endeavors. In fact, most start as adults and the “traditional”  training is significantly adapted to each student’s needs.

Images of performing contortionists who study with Serchmaa Byamba in San Francisco (in order): Inka Siefker, Lance Lance Centanni-Sachs, Samantha Halas

The Mongolia portion of the Clean Socks documentary will be filmed and photographed this July, as Lance and other adult American students travel to Ulaanbaatar in time for Naadam. Similar to the Olympics, Naadam brings together athletes from all over the country to compete in wrestling, archery, and horse-racing “games.”  The competition and ceremonial performances showcasing the best Mongolian dancers, musicians and contortionists take place in the National Sports Stadium. It is literally the biggest event of the year, for which many athletes and performers spend the rest of the year preparing. Lance and the other students from the North America will take classes with their likely-much-younger Mongolian counterparts and witness this important aspect of Mongolian culture.

They will also meet one of the grand “Madames”  of contortion, Norvosamvuu-Madame Tsend-Ayush’s first student-who popularized and promoted contortion in the 60s and 70s, transforming the practice from folk art to performance art worthy of the international stage. What were her motivations for this transformation? What does the future of contortionism in Mongolia look like, especially as more Westerners adopt this practice? How do her students translate their training to fit Western ideals? What is lost, what remains and what is gained through this process? These are the questions the Clean Socks documentary will explore.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skCvNZ3e3x0]

To raise money for production and filming costs, the Clean Socks Project  has organized  an ongoing Kickstarter campaign. Lance and the other students have spent months physically preparing themselves and saving for travel expenses. “We have made personal sacrifices,”  says Lance, “but to experience the busiest time of year for Mongolian contortionists all gathered in the same place-we are very fortunate! We want to take advantage of the situation and get the best quality and most footage of”¦Mongolian contortion while we can. With or without the Kickstarter funds we are committed to making this project happen; however the lack of additional funds would result in a major loss of content and quality.” 

To help support the Clean Socks Project, visit the organization’s Kickstarter page.

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