There are a few things in the popular imagination that get away with being both squeaky clean and filthy dirty at the same time. They somehow straddle the divide between hot and wholesome, and as such, there’s an easy test for identifying these outlier, broadly permissible mass-fetishes: a) Is it something that a large proportion of people will readily and regularly admit to being turned on by?; and yet b) is it something that people are happy to bust out in front of great-aunties and uncles at a family wedding?
One good example of this is kilts. Another (although personally I cannot fathom why anyone would view this as either sexy or socially acceptable) is playing the saxophone. And another obvious one is cleavage, of pretty much any sort, even when barely hinted at. To illustrate: )( … and for some people that’s as far through this article as they’re going to get.
But probably the weirdest, most disturbing example of a cultural artifact that manages to embody both purity and prurience in people’s minds — and, you have to assume, is a fixture on the dancefloor whenever gymnasts get married — is that ultimate everyone-look-at-me move, the splits.
Physically, it’s a bizarre and unwise act. Stretching one foot as far out as it will go in one direction while extending the other one to the opposite extreme is not only impractical, it also removes all of the genitals’ natural defenses against so many threats, including gravity and impacting on concrete. That in itself should rule it out as a potential turn-on. Even more problematic, though, is the split’s association with activities we routinely encourage kids to do: In ballet classes and gymnastics for both boys and girls, and in its traditional role as a gatekeeper maneuver for young girls who want to make the cheerleader team. At the broadest cultural level, this highlights some awkward contradictions when, in other contexts, the act of doing the splits becomes so sexualized — a moral incongruity that’s captured perfectly in this fairly sinister playground rhyme:
Mailman, mailman, do your duty, here comes Miss American Beauty.
She can do the can-can, she can do the splits,
but most of all she can kiss, kiss, kiss!
It looks like torture (in some cases it actually is torture), it’s associated with childhood and it turns perfectly natural body shapes into tense, unsteady trapezoids. Why, then, are there so many voyeurs of leg-splay out there — let’s face it, mostly heterosexual men — who find it so arousing? And for everyone else, the people who aren’t seeing anything remotely sexy going on, what the bejesus is this move actually for?
The straightforward answer to that is that in many of the contexts in which it appears (yoga, martial arts, ballet, figure skating, 1970s dance-offs), what gives a full-blown split its rubbernecking allure is the fact that it’s an impressive physical feat, much more than anything to do with hotness. Few would deny Jean-Claude Van Damme, the undisputed Sultan of Splits, achieved a true landmark in hamstring history when he sank into the pose astride two moving trucks for this imperious 2013 Volvo commercial. But any erotic appeal he might have here is likely to be limited to a very small subset of Swedish kickboxing female truck drivers.
Also falling into this vanilla category of just-because-I-can exhibitionism is this weird vaudeville tribute to Hollywood royalty from Anne Hathaway, in which she gives some fantastic “Oops, I just did the splits” face. And so does the mission Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Eye fame set himself last year, to fulfill the gymnastics promise of his school days and bring it into his stage shows — his slightly off-beam routine proves that even when performed by a 32-year-old bearded man, the radiant joy of achieving a full split on stage can still be the cutest, most innocent thing in the world.
Yet, when splits are splut in much lewder and nuder situations (by pole dancers, by burlesque performers, by people trying to sell you furniture), or in risqué choreography for the masses — usually by women but sometimes by men too — it’s definitely much more about courtship display than showboating for the sake of it. But while these more flagrant forms of crotch-spotlighting are fully intended to fuel audience fantasies, exactly how hot is it ever likely to be from the perspective of the person doing the splitting? Screaming tendons, bifurcated buttocks and hard, hard floors — again, as turn-ons go, it’s all looking a bit niche.
Welcome to Splitsville
“I’m currently regretting saying I would cartwheel into the splits every night on tour,” admits Margaret Cabourn-Smith, an actor and comedian who is playing to packed theaters as part of a live sketch show that’s halfway through a 25-stop tour of the U.K. “The main thing about the pain is the landing if you do it quickly — I have a knee and a hip covered in bruises,” she says. “I also can’t stay in them for very long. That would be painful.”
Cabourn-Smith learned to do the front splits with either leg forward (the other ones, where your legs hinge out on either side, are known variously as box splits, a middle split, or excruciatingly, the pancake split) in her late 20s, and almost by accident. She set herself the goal while taking a dance class, and realized she was only a few degrees off level during one of the warm-up exercises: “It was quite painful learning and it still can be now if I haven’t done it for a bit. It affects so many muscles!” As a comic performer, the splits aren’t an essential part of her repertoire, but they’ve been a skill that’s often come in handy. “Mine are by no means always perfect, i.e. genitals touching the floor — that’s only my definition,” she acknowledges. “But they pass. It’s nice having a surprising trick; I think it would be very different if I was a dancer, and it was a requirement.”
She hasn’t been hired yet specifically for her ability to land a front split, but her enthusiasm for it has become something of a running joke among any cast and crew she regularly works with. Every time she’s volunteered throwing it into a show, she says she’s been taken up on it. The first time she rolled it out professionally was a bit of an ad lib, though: “I did it in between takes during a TV pilot to entertain the audience as I was worried they were getting bored — and I landed it. I was then told off by a man dressed as Queen Victoria for not warming up first.”
And Queen Victoria would know, since the splits really began to emerge as a staple of popular entertainment — along with all the conflicted sexual/asexual signals that still surround them — at the tail end of her era.
Bending: The Facts
It goes without saying that in tracing the move’s origins — just like this grimly determined person pushing beyond 180 degrees into a hardcore “oversplits” position — you can actually go back much, much further. Whether by accident or design, women and men have been getting themselves into split-like configurations for as long as people have had legs — as evidenced by the fact that there are recorded examples of bodily contortion being used as public entertainment from ancient cultures across the world.
The 2014 book The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus by Linda Simon opens with the image of an Egyptian female contortionist that impressed someone enough to daub onto a wall at least 2,000 years ago. And, arguing that “The body as spectacle is the origin of the circus,” she cites a Mexican sculpture housed in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which dates from before 500 B.C. and depicts a man doing a wide middle splits: “His hands are raised triumphantly above his head; he is grinning broadly, exultant.”
Body bending has also been an element in East Asian religious rites and art forms for centuries — in Buddhist traditions in China, for example, and notably in Mongolia, where contortionism was refined into a graceful art in the royal palaces some 900 years ago and remains a central aspect of the national heritage.
But in modern Western culture the most obvious link between the splits specifically and the more virtuous historical traditions would seem to be yoga, with its ancient lineage in Hindu meditation and philosophical practice. Here, though, is where the splits’ spiritual side starts to get all tangled up with their suggestive antics, and where the move’s naughty-and-nice meaning in today’s culture starts to take shape.
According to Mark Singleton in his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, it wasn’t until the late 19th century when yoga properly arrived as a spiritual and fitness phenomenon in Europe — and it immediately collided with the Victorians’ existing obsession with sideshow limb-twisters. He points out that in Britain, celebrated “posture masters” had been wowing crowds with body-bending feats since at least the 1690s, but it was 200 years later, with the growth of photography as a mass medium in newspapers and magazines, and the popularity of P.T. Barnum-style freak show acts hitting its peak, when contortionists really caught the public’s imagination. Here’s an example of how that fascination was also at large in the U.S. at the time, with this photo from an 1889 edition of Scribner’s Magazine, taken from a story entitled “Anatomy of a Contortionist”:
Thanks to images like this, traveling yogis who thought they were exporting a high-minded meditative technique to Europe found instead that the extreme postures of yoga were being lumped together with those of the vaudeville contortionists. Singleton writes of a respected yogi named Bava Lachman Dass arriving in England in 1897 “to perform his 48 postures at a sideshow of London’s Westminster Aquarium,” who was mocked as a vulgar showman by the British press: “Evidently, the British and American reading public were well primed to understand Dass’ display as a form of contortionism, albeit enhanced with the magical glow of the East.”
The intertwining of yoga and contortionism during this period is widely acknowledged, and at least one of the yoga poses that incorporate the splits, “hanumanasana,” or “monkey pose,” isn’t all that ancient — instead, it’s thought to be an innovation from around this time (many modern yoga poses were developed in the early 20th century).
Sullying the splits further in the Western imagination was the fact that these decades were also the age of the can-can, a dance built around vertical high kicks and its signature grand écart (jump splits) move. Its crotch-exhibiting steps were scandalous when the dance emerged in the mid-1800s, although to begin with it was often performed by low-class men as well as bawdy women. By the time it evolved into its classic frilly-dressed feminine form in the Moulin Rouge chorus lines in the 1920s, though, it had probably done a great deal to sexualize the splits along gender lines, and to style them into a handy signifier of louche female seduction for choreographers and nightclub dancers right through to today.
Meanwhile, the erotic lure of contortionism also intensified during the early decades of the 20th century — though its sex appeal was ascribed to both male and female performers, at least to begin with. In her history of the circus, Linda Simon notes that businessmen visiting Paris in the 1930s applauded the fact that nude female contortion acts were permitted in France, while by mid-century authors of schlocky romance fiction with titles such as Double-Jointed Romeo featured heroines who “kept wondering what a contortionist might — well, might do.” “Images of male benders,” writes Simon, “with their heads protruding beneath their genitals, fed these fantasies.”
“I’ve never been asked to do it for sexy reasons,” says Cabourn-Smith, although she does encounter “references to it being hot” every now and then, at radio recordings, rehearsals and the like. “Scrabbling about getting up afterwards isn’t very slick,” she points out, “and I guess the bruises are, in reality, fairly unsexy.” Aside from the comedy value, what she gets out of doing them is that it’s “fantastically show-offy,” and she finds that “being bendy and stretching your body is definitely physically beneficial for an increasingly creaky body.”
What’s changed after a century or so of mass-entertainment splitting is that now, extreme suppleness is usually only seen as a sexy quality in women. Cabourn-Smith laments the fact that for men, “being bendy is definitely not seen as ‘masculine,’” and puts the mismatch in gender perceptions down to some basic anatomical logistics. “I suspect the turned-on element is because bendy women are sexy — the whole ‘Ooh, you can put your ankles behind your head’ thing. It’s about access,” she suggests.
For anyone who might still be skeptical about the sheer carnal magnetism of a guy who can get flat, we refer you again to pancake maestro Van Damme: In this scene from his 1991 movie Double Impact, he seduces an entire female aerobics class by spilling his irresistible man-splits secrets: “Because of my big legs… and karate… I can do the splits, no problem!”
So, on balance, are they hot or wholesome? Or to put it another way, are the splits fundamentally Jane Fonda in a photoshoot for Barbarella or Jane Fonda in a 1980s workout video? In a sense, it doesn’t matter either way, because whatever image the smiling splitster is hoping to project — balletic perfection, an athletic command of their body or silky sexual prowess — it’s likely to be masking the tremendous amount of psychological effort and physical strain going into holding that position.
Sexy splits in particular are about as shallow as performance gets. Apologies to anyone for whom this might come as an unwelcome buzzkill, but inside, they might well be thinking something like, “Dear God, how much longer?” or “How do I stop myself from toppling backwards this time?” Or perhaps: “There goes another expensive pant suit.” But as for, “What I’d most like to do right now, beyond anything else, is have acrobatic, limber sex with someone” — that’s a bit of a stretch.