Nine-year-old Mongolian schoolgirl Suvd-Erdene spends four hours a day perfecting the art of doing a head-stand on a pole clenched with her teeth and push-ups without her feet touching the ground. She and about a dozen team mates are training in a basement in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to be contortionists, a revered art that Mongolians say was developed in the palace of 13th century warlord and national hero Genghis Khan.
Usually performed by females, the discipline involves twisting and stretching the body to the extreme.
The diminutive Suvd-Erdene makes the moves look easy having completed years of gruelling training that began with intensive stretching exercises when she was six. “I cried when my teacher made me do the stretching exercises, at that time I felt really discouraged,” she said.
The girls are given time off school to train down a drab Ulaanbaatar back street under the guidance of 22-year-old Urangoo, a third-generation contortionist.
Urangoo took up training young contortionists after her own hopes of hitting the big time and performing abroad ended when she suffered an injury at the age of 12.
Mongolian contortionists are in high demand and performers may be vaulted into an international career if they are lucky enough to be spotted by scouts from theatrical producers like Cirque du Soleil.
For Suvd-Erdene’s team mate Shinezul, becoming a contortionist is also a matter of national pride. “It’s the Mongolian people’s dream to introduce Mongolian national culture and art to the whole world, so that’s why I want to be the best contortionist in the world,” she said.