Mandkhai Erdembat

Mongolian Contortion
Arlington, Virginia

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Mandkhai Erdembat was born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and traveled across the globe to perform contortion on cruise ships, at festivals, and dinner shows before moving to the United States in 2012.

Mongolian contortion has existed since the twelfth century as a dance called Uran Nugaralt, which translates to “artistic bending.” This kind of dance was prominent in the royal palaces of Mongolia before it became associated with the international success of the Mongolian State Circus in the 1940s. To this day, Mongolian contortionists are known around the world for their mastery in the field.

As a child, Mandkhai frequently visited the circus with her grandmother, Dolgorjav, who had many friends there from her time as a singer. Contortion training is highly respected in Mongolia, and Dolgorjav took Mandkhai to her first contortion classes when she was 5 years old. Traditionally, training begins before the age of 8 to achieve the necessary flexibility. Mandkhai, however, does not believe age limits are necessary as everyone can learn something from contortion. In Mandkhai’s experience, contortion training goes beyond flexibility and teaches us how to live in a more positive way. In 2017, she published a book, Honor, to share this wisdom from her life as a contortionist. She also started her own contortion school in Northern Virginia several years ago.

As one of approximately 8,000 immigrants from Mongolia who live in the Washington, D.C. area, Mandkhai works to promote and perpetuate the art of contortionism in the community. In 2018, she participated as a Master Artist in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, mentoring the young twin sisters Ella and Emma Chuluunbat. Mandkhai’s debut at the Richmond Folk Festival last year had audiences enthralled, and we are most excited for her return in 2019.