During our time at Columbia, most of us meet one or two group leaders, student government presidents, star athletes, and the like. But there are many Columbians whose profiles are lower, yet their talents are just as (or even more) awesome
. Here’s our recurring feature devoted to those students, starting with Anna Cooperberg-Gonzalez, aka “that girl twisting herself into a pretzel outside Butler.”

While sitting around bored and restless, Anna Cooperberg-Gonzalez, CC ’12, likes to stretch. Except, as she puts it, “when I do it … it’s a little more extreme than usual.” Anna, it so happens, is a student of circus arts, namely aerial fabrics (twisting about in the air) and contortion (twisting about anywhere). In her youth, she found herself compulsively drawn to the monkey bars, to anything that she could climb, swing from, and snake about, really. So naturally when she happened to attend the Independent Lake Camp in the summer after 7th grade, originally intending to practice dance and do some zip-lining, she fell in love with the camp’s fabric climbing programs.

Now, after years of trapeze and fabrics and contortions, Anna is basically an elastic girl, and it is in her nature to stretch, bend, twist, and scurry up long pieces of fabric to perform absurd gymnastic routines. Indeed, it is so much a part of her soul, her drive, that as we speak she casts an eye up to the ceiling of the Butler lounge. I ask her if she’s thinking of scaling the wall and swinging about from the lights. She keeps her eyes to the ceiling, cogs spinning in her head, and absentmindedly replies: “I always look to see if I could rig a fabric up in a room. Yeah, this room is no good. I wouldn’t swing from the lights. It’s just not safe.”

It becomes apparent that Anna is obsessively concerned with safety, as well she should be: the almost inhuman (although totally natural, she assures) positions in contortion look a sure way to displace something internal. Anna, though, has been taught to avoid injury, to always know one’s limits, one’s tools, and she seems quite healthier and happier than most people for it.

Ensuring that she remains limber, though, is quite a time commitment. Anna stretches at least two hours a day, and on the days when she prepares to contort she stretches twice as long. And though this may seem too high commitment to pay for someone who only performs one or twice a year at charity shows, this is Anna’s bliss. And one would be hard-put to find anyone who seems more content than Anna when she talks about pretzling herself. That, and she has reaped some amazing and practical physical benefits, such as her freakishly strong hands. As she puts it, “like…I can open any jar.”


But life is lonely for the solitary performer. Anna knows of no other Columbia students who practice contortion. Rather, most of the campus seems shocked when she tells them she does contortion, as if they’ve found a mythical creature (not that it would be difficult to confuse the small, sprightly Anna for a fairy). A group known as the Columbia Circus Arts Collective existed as recently as 2007, but when Anna came to campus in 2008 she could find no traces of them. It does not seem to cause Anna any distress to be the lone contortionist – she actually enjoys the odd looks it gets her from time to time – but one imagines that it must be a pain to have to travel to Williamsburg’s Strap Lab of Action Mechanics (SLAM) every time she wants to sling up a fabric and twirl about. Maybe Columbia can reconsider its “no fabric climbing” policy?

– Mark Hay, photos courtesy of Sam Draxler and Anna Cooperberg-Gonzalez