Muscle Is Celebrating Your Body

Photo by Karolina Knepaite

“Trying to do something every day that feels good for me… helps me focus my energy on celebrating my body for all that it does rather than what it looks like.”

Allison Schieler

Activities: Mobility training, HIIT, Pole and Aerial Arts, Dancer

Social Media: @Bomchicka_wawa

Career: Contortionist, Dancer, and Aerial Performer

Song: The Gold by Manchester Orchestra

The Gold

The pole and aerial world is a world of mesmerizing talent. Many of those who are a part of it have abilities that appear humanly impossible, Allison is one of them.

In my initial introduction, I was told she taught Flexibility classes, and I immediately thought, “well, she will never see me in class, cause I don’t wanna stretch for 90 min.” Several months later, another coworker mentioned he was taking private flex classes with Allison, and I didn’t get it because I just couldn’t understand how much stretching he could need. When I asked him, he explained he was working on increasing his mobility because he wanted to become a contortionist and Allison was coaching him. I knew what a contortionist was, I had seen one perform, but it still didn’t really register to me. We worked in a pole and aerial studio and he wanted to learn contortion??? See I like many, thought I knew what contortionist did. Like many I believed they twisted their bodied into hyper mobile positions, with no fluidity, rhyme, or reason. They were the people you saw at haunted houses, and that’s as far as it went. Impressive flexibility, but unless they were part of the circus, their career options, were limited to Halloween gigs. To me, the amount of work it would take to become that mobile, to only gig once a year… the effort for the gain just seemed unbalanced.

Boy was I WRONG! My narrow scope of what I witnessed and knew about contortion was totally dispelled when my coworker pulled up a video of Allison performing. I was speechless. She brought a beauty and style to contortion I had never seen before. She danced through fluidly connecting contortion to modern dance moves to handstands… balance, strength, flexibility, agility she encompassed it all and made it look effortless. “Brilliant” is all I could think, “sheer brilliance!”

Over the years, I have gotten to talk with Allison, learn more about her and her background. She is the kind of person you look forward to seeing and like having around. She’s funny with a sweet and sassy nature, she’s beautiful inside and out and it’s so good to see her coming into her own, becoming all she was created to be and more. These are a few of the many reasons I asked her to be a part of MCBMI. I hope you enjoy reading her interview as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Thank you Allison for proving me wrong, teaching me something new and sharing a bit of your shine with me.

Q:  When you hear the word contortion, what comes to mind?

When I hear the word “contortion,” I immediately associate it with all of the wonderful memories I have made throughout my career. I think of the costumes I’ve worn, the venues I’ve performed in, the people I’ve met, the traveling I’ve done, and definitely the countless hours I’ve spent training!

Q:  How did you become a contortionist?

My parents enrolled me in dance classes at my local studio when I was about 5 or 6 years old. My cousins and older sister all danced, so it made sense to enroll me too. I HATED it. I cried my entire first lesson. But my parents encouraged me to stick it out and of course I ended up loving it! In fact, I went on to spend my entire childhood competing (think Dance Moms). One of the disciplines I studied, and was naturally pretty skilled in, was “acrobatics.” This was my first introduction to tumbling and flexibility-based/contortion skills like chest stand, forearm stand, etc. I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember sitting at home downloading Cirque du Soleil videos on Limewire and Kazaa (throwback!) and trying to do the things I saw their contortionists do!

Song: Wicked Game performed by James Vincent McMarrow

When I was a sophomore at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, I said goodbye to studio life, stopped competing, and focused full time on the professional dance training I was receiving at school. That meant goodbye to my acro classes as well. Contortion was something I continued to do on the side for fun, like performing in my high school’s talent show each of my four years, but it didn’t receive any of my real attention. I took an even bigger break from contortion when I began attending NYU/Tisch. The conservatory schedule coupled with my academic classes left such little time and energy for anything else. Plus, this whole time, I didn’t even know professional contortion coaches existed in NYC!

I had sporadically taken a handful of aerial silks classes, but never stuck with it because of time and money. After college, I was auditioning for a dance gig working with the wonderful Ryan Daniel Beck (we would later coach at the same studio. The world is so small!) and Elizabeth Williams (Cirque du Soleil performer). I was so inspired by how strong and seemingly perfect she was. When I found out that she was a professional aerialist, it encouraged me to get back into it! After a quick google search, I found Body and Pole. I started taking pole and aerial classes, and I loved it so much! I even applied for their work study program so that I could have access to unlimited training. So many instructors at B&P at that time were professional circus performers, and when they found out I was a contortionist I began to be approached about gigs. I had a very distinct “I can get paid for doing this!?” moment and just like that, I segued right back into contortion. 

Q:  Your athletic career began in Rhythmic Gymnastics. How old were you when you started and why did you stop?

My athletic career actually began with dance! (My only experience with Rhythmic Gymnastics was a private lesson I took when I was maybe 10 years old. I accidentally threw the ribbon half-way across the gym and knew pretty much immediately it wasn’t for me). As mentioned above, my parents enrolled me in dance classes at my local studio when I was 5 or 6 years old, and I never stopped. I went on to study dance at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and then NYU/Tisch. I still incorporate a lot of dance into my contortion routines!

Q:  What other activities were you involved in as a child?

Honestly, not many! Dance/Acrobatics took up a lot of my time, which was fine by me because I loved it so much! I had lessons most days after school and competitions took up a lot of my weekends. I was also the type of kid who didn’t do things that I wasn’t immediately good at (refer back to my rhythmic gymnastics fiasco!). I played the flute for about 10 minutes in the fourth grade until I concluded “I didn’t like it,” which really meant I knew I wasn’t any good. My mom will tease that I am still like this. I don’t completely disagree. 

Q:  The time that passed between gymnastics and becoming a contortionist, did you work on your flexibility regularly?

Absolutely. Even during the times where I wasn’t actively practicing contortion, I was still dancing — and I was dancing A LOT. So I absolutely was still training and working on my flexibility. 

Photo by Renee Choi

Q:  You teach flexibility classes, in the aerial arts world, many students long to be more flexible. What advice would you give those with limited range of motion?

Gaining flexibility requires consistency, dedication, and patience. It can be uncomfortable and frustrating, and it takes time. I encourage you to stick with it! Celebrate your victories, no matter how small they may seem to you. Take progress photos – seeing how far you’ve come is exciting! My second piece of advice is to work with an established coach. Injuries caused by poor technique can be serious. Always learn from someone who knows what they’re doing and can help you practice safely. 

Q:  How much of hyper mobility do you believe is naturally there, and how much of it is training from an early age?

I definitely had a fair amount of natural mobility as a child, but the training I received was extremely important. Not only did training help me increase my range of motion, but it helped me to control it. Having natural mobility was a good “head start” I suppose, but it would be worthless without years of training!

Q:  Let’s talk about body image, was there ever a time when you felt uncomfortable in your own skin? If so, what led to that feeling and what helped you come out of it?

Absolutely. When I started attending LaGuardia HS, where I was training in concert dance – predominantly Ballet and the Horton and Graham techniques – there was a lot of pressure to be thin, which I wasn’t. I already aired on the side of being more muscular because of all of the tumbling I did as a kid, and I was also a more developed teenager. Having a “ballet body” was just not in the genetic cards for me. In freshman year, one of my teachers told my mom that I needed to lose weight, which, as you can imagine, is pretty detrimental to a 13 year old. There were mean kids that made comments, too. I spiraled a bit my sophomore and junior years. I beat myself up constantly, thinking it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t eat what my friends could eat – that I wasn’t just born thin like the other dancers – and I actually ended up gaining weight. I slimmed down pretty significantly senior year, but it didn’t matter. The pattern followed me to college. I’ve lost and gained weight plenty of times throughout my life. I even struggled with sporadic purging in college. I like to think I am in a better place now, but I am certainly not “out of it.” Loving my body is effort. I am constantly working toward some sort of elusive “perfect” body that I don’t even think I’d recognize if I saw it. Trying to do something every day that feels good for me – like the virtual pole and HIIT classes I’ve been taking during quarantine – helps me focus my energy on celebrating my body for all that it does rather than what it looks like. It’s definitely a process.

Photo by Ab Sesay

Q:  In a specialized art form where many involved tend to be rail thin, you are considered curvy. When you initially decided to get into the industry, was that a concern of yours?

Fun fact: I HATE this word. I know (most) people mean it to be a compliment, but my experiences have wired my brain to hate the word “curvy.” It’s the worst, and it’s used to describe me often. I’ve spent so many years believing that I wasn’t thin or fit enough. I was constantly fighting against my natural body type and struggling to achieve a certain figure. Now, at 29, to finally have some semblance of self-love for the healthy body I’ve built, and to be described as “curvy,” … it’s pretty defeating. Going off for a second on a separate tangent, I do encourage people to think twice before commenting on someone else’s body. Even if you’re coming from a good place, you don’t know how your words are going to be received.

I spent my dance career beating myself up for not looking a certain way. Luckily, this was not my experience in circus. When I began gigging, I found that I was being celebrated for my talents. Finally, my ability was more important than what I looked like! Of course, I still had moments of insecurity and frustration – like if I didn’t fit into a costume – but I was getting hired because I was good, not turned down because I did or did not look a certain way. 

Now, years into my professional career, I feel that my body has actually helped me carve a space for myself in the performance world. My “different” body type and my years of dance training have contributed to my own individual style which sets me apart. I love seeing all different body types celebrated in circus, and I think there is a place for everyone!

Q:   Have you ever suffered injuries due to your hyper mobility? If so, what methods did you use to recover?

I have definitely suffered injuries throughout my career. Most of them were not the result of being hyper mobile in and of itself, but rather from imbalances in my body caused by favoring one side over the other or over training. When I was younger, most of my injuries were minor, causing aches and pains that I just let subside on their own (definitely not the way I recommend handling chronic pain!). Then about two years ago I started experiencing extreme pain in my back that wouldn’t allow me to backbend. This didn’t appear to be something that was going away on its own, nor was it something I could perform or train through, and I was definitely panicking. A friend of mine recommended physiotherapist Dr. Joseph Turcic and he changed my life. Not only did he rehab me through this pain, but he made me feel extremely calm from the get-go; he assured me that it was NOT career ending and gave me confidence that I would recover. I have been working with him ever since. Having a body worker you trust is extremely important. I see Dr. Turcic every few weeks for body maintenance whether or not I am experiencing pain.

Q:  Most people who are flexible don’t do resistance training because they believe it will eventually decrease their level of flexibility. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

Life is about balance! If you were to weight train, lift heavy, run, etc. regularly without stretching, it is likely you’ll start to tighten up. But that is a two-way street. If you have an extreme level of mobility but no strength to support it, odds are high that you will injure yourself. I include a fair amount of conditioning in my lessons because it is imperative you have a healthy level of both strength and mobility. Whether or not you want to engage in intense cross training like lifting, aerial work, etc. is a personal choice, but I wouldn’t let the fear of tightening up stop you from doing something you enjoy. If you are finding a balance that works for your body, it is absolutely possible to do both. 

Q:   Your work allows you to travel all over the world. Where’s the best place you’ve been and your least favorite and why?

Allison in the Swiss Alps

I am grateful to say that I’ve enjoyed everywhere my work has taken me thus far! Most of my career has taken me only across the US. Then last year I booked my first international gig – I spent 2 weeks in Montreal learning the show; then a month in Edinburgh performing in the Fringe Festival; and finally a month touring southern Germany, with a stop in Marnach, Luxembourg and Schlanders, Italy. We only had one show in Italy so we did not stay long, but our drive to get there took us through the Swiss Alps. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The water was an absolutely unreal ice blue, and the mountains were overwhelmingly breathtaking. And of course everyone in Schlanders spoke Italian, German, AND English, which makes you feel super inadequate. I would have liked to explore that area more!

Q:  Are there still moves that you want to learn to do as a contortionist?

Absolutely. The circus journey is never over and there is always more to learn! A lot of my training now focuses on strength-based movements and handstands. 

Q:  What is the longevity of a career as a contortionist?

I guess this answer will differ for everybody! You can definitely extend your career if you train safely and take care of your body! 

Q:  Would you ever transition into anything aerial based as a performer? If so, what?

Absolutely. Aerial is not my main discipline, but I do already get hired sporadically for aerial hoop and pole dance gigs! It is very realistic that I may one day have to move away from contortion and into a different discipline as my body ages. Maybe my path will even lead me back to dancing!

Lyra performance- Photo by Karolina Knepaite

Q:  Talk about the struggles of being a performer with this unique ability. Is steady work hard to come by? Do you get work via word of mouth, or an agent?

Gig life can definitely ebb and flow. Prior to COVID, I was lucky enough to be performing pretty consistently, though some months were busier than others. With the onset of COVID, performing pretty much stopped altogether. I have been coaching for years and so I have that as a constant source of income when performances are scarce. I have even been able to coach virtually during the shutdown (I am teaching virtual open level contortion classes Mondays 2-3:30 ET and Wednesdays 12-1:30 ET, and am available for private coaching)! There are a few entertainment companies I have been working with for years at this point, and a lot of work comes through them. Beyond that, I actually get A LOT of work through social media. That’s how I booked the tour last year – I was approached after the owner of the company saw a video of me performing on Facebook! Many of the people I coach have also found me through my posts on social media, mainly Instagram.  

Q:  Have you ever thought about working with Cirque du Soleil or joining a circus? If not, why?

Photo by Renee Choi

Of course! Growing up, Cirque du Soleil was the dream. I applied and was invited to attend a private audition when I was 17 years old. I was excited beyond belief. However, this was when I was in high school and not training contortion, so very understandably I was not at the level they required and was cut. In 2018, years after getting back into the circus arts and training seriously, I applied and was invited to participate in a joint audition for Cirque du Soleil, The 7 Fingers, and Cirque Eloize. I successfully made it through the audition and was put into the casting pool of artists these companies call when they have roles that need to be filled. Unfortunately, sometimes it ends there. If they never have a role appropriate for me, I won’t get called. And honestly, the niche I’ve made for myself doesn’t really mesh with what bigger companies tend to look for. My routines are very inspired by and rooted in my dance training. I am not Mongolian trained and performing one-arm handstands like the contortionists in Cirque. And sometimes smaller companies just simply don’t have many roles available for a contortionist. 

My contract last year gave me my first taste of tour life, and honestly, I’m not sure if that is something I would do for an extended period of time even if it was offered to me. A different town, a different hotel room, a different venue every night was rough. I love having roots in NYC. Corporate gigs and nightlife still give me enough excitement and financial support that I can see my career staying here for a bit. I guess we will see what the future has in store!

Q:  What are some things you view as pitfalls of the job?

I absolutely love what I do, but I guess like any job there are pros and cons. Performing isn’t always glitter and smiles – the days can be long and exhausting; your green room might be cold or small and you’re stuck in there for hours; and you might have a not-so-friendly client. Additionally, you’ll probably find yourself sacrificing personal plans to perform on holidays like Halloween or NYE. But ultimately, these are small prices to pay in my eyes to be able to do what I love. 

Q:  What advice would you give others looking to become a contortionist?

Train safely, take care of your body, and stick with it!! I cannot overstate the importance of finding a coach that can help you work with proper technique – this will help you progress more quickly/efficiently AND avoid injury. And even if you are training safely, this discipline is inherently hard on your body. Get body work (PT, acupuncture, massage, etc.) done regularly to help keep your body healthy and functioning properly. And don’t give up! The journey can be long and daunting, but stay strong and stick with it! 

Q:  Why did you agree to be a part of MCBMI?
I love what MCBMI is all about – celebrating women!! Inspiring others to live active lifestyles by providing a platform for women to talk about their experiences and normalizing the idea that athletes come in all shapes and sizes!

*Join me Sunday Nov. 22nd at 1 p.m (EST) for a LIVE CHAT with Allison on the @mcbmi IG page. Bring your questions!!! Check out the event calendar for new posts and other info.