While there are many contortionists at work today, only a handful are deemed to be among the “best”. Mongolian performer Otgo Waller is one. Here she tells us about her battle to reach the top. 

Romantic images of horses galloping past nomadic tents and rolling hills, speeding across vast, neverending steppes. For most, that’s what springs to mind when they think of my home country of Mongolia. For me, however, the place is a painful reminder of a hellish childhood spent amid a cruel socialist regime, where my dream of becoming one of the world’s best contortionists was the only thing that kept me going.

Today, at 49 years old, I’m a world-renowned contortionist and coach. I’ve worked for circuses all over America and my face was even featured on a Mongolian postage stamp. And while I may make many impossible postures look easy, my climb to the top of my career was tough.

It was when I was seven years old that I first saw a lady on television twisting her body into incredible shapes. From that moment, I was hooked. Luckily for me, the art of contortion is embedded in Mongolian culture; we’ve honed our skills over hundreds of years, and many link the tradition to our local folk dance, Biyelgee—or Bii. So it wasn’t hard for me to begin my training immediately.

My coach was Norovsambuu Begz and he focused more on my strength and conditioning, as I was naturally very flexible. I trained in many exercises, from the hook foot push-up to the crocodile push-up and contortion handstand jumps (these are the original names from Mongolia, which we still use today). The left one-arm handstand push-up took me a full year to master. None of it was painful, but it was extremely hard; I trained two to four hours a day, six days a week. I never had a childhood, and I became a professional contortionist when I was just 11-years-old, in order to support my family. My life was my work.

In 1991, I was among the very first Mongolian troupe of circus performers to come to America, where I am still based. I was one of 40 performers who went to work for two years with the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After that contract ended, I decided to stay in the “Land of the Free.” I became the first Mongolian contortionist to build my own American Dream. I started my own company, published my first book, Twisted Tales: My Life As a Mongolian Contortionist (I’m currently working on my second), and I have copyrighted and trademarked my flexibility and contortion training technique. I may have been one of the first to arrive—and among the first professional contortionists in the U.S.—but I paved a path for my people to follow. Today, there are thousands of Mongolian contortionists and circus performers in America.

It has been decades since I first fell in love with contortionism, but I still truly believe it is one of the most unique and beautiful art forms. Anybody, given the right coaching and proper training techniques, can become a professional contortionist. But age does matter. If you want to perform for Cirque du Soleil or any other major shows, for example, they only hire pros while they’re still young.

Now, as I approach 50-years-old, one of my favorite quotes to live by is: “stretch yourself and stretch your life.” So I still perform my act and train almost every single day, not just for my health or my career, but also because I want to continue being a strong female role-model for future generations of young Mongolian girls to look up to. As a woman, contortion allows you to feel fully in control of your own body and everything it can do (and, trust me, it can do a lot). It allows you to stretch your limits, both physically and mentally, and makes you feel powerful. Most importantly, mastering contortionism has taught me—the little Mongolian girl with the big American dream—that nothing is impossible. It became a part of my soul and, ultimately, set me free.