The backs of his knees are under his armpits and his feet are behind his head. If not for his relaxed, reassuring smile you would expect Justin Phahlane to be screaming in agony. Yet twisting himself like a pretzel is just another day at work for this professional contortionist.
Contortionism is a form of physical performance which involves dramatic bending, flexing and twisting of the human body – and it’s the 31-year-old’s passion.
The performer, who is also known as The Rubberman, tells DRUM it began as a hobby when he was a child after he saw contortionists of The Great Moscow Circus in action in a televised performance. “I was amazed by how the performers could bend their bodies in ways I had never seen before. I began to imitate the moves in my own time, trying to master the poses I’d see in the shows,” Justin says.
Years of honing his passion into a fulltime career has led to him performing on TV shows in Mzansi, as well as in front of Zambian president Edgar Lungu recently. It has also spurred him to nurture an appreciation for contortionism in his rural community in Pieterskraal, Mpumalanga. Justin has formed a community-based team of contortionists, aptly called The Rubber Team, with members ranging in age from 12 to 32.
He loves what he does but making a living from it hasn’t been easy, he admits. “We aren’t a country that regards contortionism as a sport, so that means there are no government development centres or competitions for it.
“The other constraints of being in a niche market are the cost implications for the equipment one needs,” he says, explaining that promoting himself and buying costumes are costs that come out of his own pocket. “The team that I’ve started have to practise in my garage,” he adds.
Despite the obstacles he faces, Justin is optimistic. “What keeps me motivated is knowing I’m doing something I’m passionate about. The results will come.” Performing in front of Zambia’s president last year “was by far the greatest performance I have had”. He was scheduled to perform in Botswana recently, but in the wake of the recent xenophobic violence in South Africa that show had to be postponed.
You don’t need to be double-jointed to be a contortionist, but it does require a great deal of stretching, and lots and lots of practise. Justin gave his first performance in front of an audience when he was 13 years old, at a talent show at his school.
His peers took to the stage to sing and dance, but Justin had jaws on the floor with his bending and twisting. “Some people called it magic,” he recalls with a laugh.
The crowd’s roars of encouragement and his own feeling of accomplishment was enough for him to know this was something he wanted to do, even though his family wanted him to concentrate on his schoolwork.
He took a break from contortionism for a while to become a traditional healer. It’s something that runs in the family, he shared with CliffCentral.com a few years ago. “It’s something I inherited from my mom. I worked with her for a couple of years, she showed me how to heal people . . . it’s a very useful skill to have,” he said.
It wasn’t long before he returned to his passion, honing his skills with relentless practise, and a little help from Google and YouTube. “I followed The Great Moscow Circus to learn routines,” he shares, adding that it was his internet research that taught him the importance of warming up and stretching to prevent injuries. “‘What if you break your bones?’ That was the first thing my family asked me when I told them this is what I wanted to do after high school,” he says.
It was a valid question “but as a performer I know what I am capable of”. “I try not to push myself too much. When I feel like I’m about to hurt myself, I stop.” Justin is proud to say he’s never injured himself or broken any bones.
The skills he’s learnt over the past 18 years are now being shared with The Rubber Team, a group of four performers. Being naturally flexible is a plus for would-be contortionists, “but I believe that with training and exercise anyone can do it”.
“I try to teach them the basics of the exercises they need to do and from there we build routines,” he says. He provides the training sessions free of charge and the group works out in his garage.
Since his high school days, Justin has known he wanted to do something “unique and creative” but he admits the market for his brand of performance isn’t huge in South Africa. “Not a lot of people know about contortion and the greater market remains overseas,” he says. Yet he’s not planning on leaving anytime soon.
“I believe one can be profitable anywhere. I treat what I do as a sport and it is up to you to decide how you use what you earn, and the responsibility falls on you to be versatile.” Things are looking up these days, he tells us. “I perform at parties, corporate functions, club activations and I have done some work with various brands recently.”
While most of his work comes from far outside his village, he says he doesn’t see any reason to relocate. “As long as I’m in South Africa I can work anywhere. Making it in SA is the goal and so is building a brand abroad.”
Justin wants to continue sharing his talent in a bid to have contortionism treated like a sport. “I want to impart the skill to as many people as I can, while also teaching people more about it.
Part of growing my brand is creating a market because people cannot want something they don’t know about.” He also wants to expand The Rubber Team with the help of sponsors.
“I want to establish an institution so anyone who is interested in contortion will have somewhere to go – and it shouldn’t be something exclusive.” Being able to twist and bend your body has its perks. “Especially with the ladies,” Justin says with a laugh. “I think they like the costumes,” he grins.