Let's see now. You do a backbend, and when your hands are all the way down on the floor behind your heels, you slowly lift your legs up so you're standing on your hands. Then you bend your legs at the hip so they extend over your head like a roof. Now you bend your knees -- you still with me? -- and curl up until you can tuck your feet under your arms.
Then you start doing push-ups.
Rudolph Delmonte is a contortionist with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is 23 years old, and the first thing he says is that he is not double-jointed.
Actually, that isn't the question. The question is whether he has any joints at all or is just made of muscle.
"I can't explain the moves," he said. He sketched on a table top with his finger. "My legs are here, my top is here, and my arms, like it makes a zigzag . . ."
He starts off his act with a one-handed handstand, simplicity itself, and then he balances on a 3-foot-long wand and does the handstand on that. Then he balances a small ladder on one of its legs and does the handstand on that. Followed by the feet-under-the-arms thing while still on the ladder. For the finale he bites on a horizontal bar, ties himself in a knot and balances there, supported by his teeth, while he whirls hoops on his arms.
The contortions are so bizarre that you tend to forget how strong he is. In fact they would be almost sickening to look at were it not for the excruciatingly slow grace with which he moves. It is a kind of ballet contained in one body.
"I did go to ballet school at 11," he said. "I did that for seven years and jazz dancing for eight years."
Five years ago he was runner-up for Mr. Teen-age America in weightlifting. It is not in the least surprising.
"My mother taught me everything I know. She's from Holland, and she met my father here in the circus in 1948. He was a lion trainer, but they were divorced and my father took the act to another circus. So she worked with me."
Anna Delmonte, who was a contortionist and showgirl until 1956, sews in the wardrobe department when not coaching her son. It was she who made him the spangled cape that would have cost, as he says, $4,000 if ordered from outside.
Brought up in Sarasota, Fla., the traditional winter home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the young Delmonte has been part of the circus as long as he can remember. As a kid he worked in the Circus Hall of Fame there, and he has always lived in its exotic world: the fliers in their glittering satin costumes, the clowns with their orange flyaway hair and Size 76 shoes, the wild-animal trainers whose arms and faces bear scars they can't even account for.
"I started at 7," he said. "You know, anybody can do what I do, but you have to start very young and work on it all the time. All the time. I've only had one month off all my life. If you don't keep at it, you lose it. After 24 hours your back begins to get stiff. Even if you practice only 20 minutes a day, like when you're on the road, it's something."
He works two or three hours almost every day, sometimes goes through his entire act twice running "to see if it feels as good the second time." Before he starts, he warms up for half an hour. Always.
"My mother told me there are four places in the back that have to be completely limber, from the hips to the neck. A lot of performers only have two really limber places in their back, but that's not enough."
He has learned not to eat a big meal before going on, not because it makes him sick but because the bending pushes his stomach up into his lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. The worst thing is a head cold. When you are holding yourself up by your teeth, it is not so great if you can't breathe through your nose.
Most contortionists retire around 40, but Delmonte hopes to keep going longer, if he can keep limber. "Just as long as it looks easy. When it doesn't look easy, you better quit." But that's a long way off for this slender, compact young man. He loves the business, makes "as much as a doctor or lawyer" and travels the world. He has appeared in the Shrine circus and other shows, has been on TV in "That's Incredible!" and "You Asked for It," made a TV movie called "Side Show" starring Tony Franciosa and Connie Stevens. The constant travel doesn't bother him as long as he can live in style, either in his 35-foot trailer or on the circus train during the grueling 11-month season.
"I'm a beach person," he said. "My mother made me give up the hang-gliding and motorbiking, but I still do my scuba diving. She can't keep me from that."
At one point his act was a solo in the center ring, but the management thought it would be more effective as part of a three-ring display, so now he works alongside an acrobatic team and another contortionist. The silent rivalry spurs him on, he says. It is an intimate act, best seen in a small hall such as the Las Vegas nightclub where he worked for nine months. The audience there sat at the very foot of the 5-foot pedestal he performs on, and he enjoyed hearing the gasps and sensing the eyes fastened on every impossible move he made.
"I've gone about as far as you can go," Rudolph Delmonte mused, "but I'm always looking for new ideas. I thought maybe when I do the one-hand handstand I could try whirling some hoops with my other arm and my legs . . ."