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Shemika Charles – Guiness World Limbo Champion

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To limbo, one must be limber. Shemika Charles knows that, and the 17-year-old realizes in order to set the world limbo record, she must train daily and maintain her focus. “Let’s just say I don’t have a regular teenage life,” said Shemika, a native of Trinidad. She will be a senior this year at Cardinal O’Hara High School. “No Dave &Buster’s, no outings with friends to the mall. No boyfriends. I don’t get to do those things because they are a big distraction, and I agree. I don’t like it, but I agree.”

Shemika –known as Princess Shemika when she’s performing on stage with her family in the Caribbean Extravaganza steel drum band –does much more than limbo. She dances, sings and –at one point during the family act –twists her body into poses that could grace the cover of Yoga Journal magazine.

Her flexibility and determination are critical to her family’s goal of Shemika setting a world limbo record. While the record-setting date has not been scheduled, the family hopes to travel to New York City next month to meet with Guinness Book of Records officials and to schedule an appearance on a nationally televised talk show.

“All I do now is perform,” said Shemika. “Wind me up and I’m set to go. When I don’t perform, I practice.”

Camp Limbo

The road to the record started four years ago at the Florida State Fair, when Caribbean Extravaganza’s limbo dancer bolted for Jamaica. The family was left scrambling, and turned to Shemika, who was 13 at the time. She desperately wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Sherrie Charles.

“We didn’t panic. We had six weeks, and I told Shemika we would be training hard,” said Bobby Diaz, 70, Shemika’s uncle, coach and the band manager. “So she trained every day for four hours after school.”

In performing the limbo, a dancer moves to a Caribbean rhythm, leans backward—way backward — and dances under a horizontal pole without touching it. Upon touching the limbo pole or falling backward, the dancer fails.

Their target in Florida was to clear a pole 15 inches from the ground, an “acceptable” goal for serious limbo dancers. Within three weeks, Shemika cleared 10 inches.

“It was a breeze,” Diaz recalled. “One thing Shemika has that other limbo dancers do not is grace. Most of them twist or bend their heads to get under the bar. She does not. She goes in straight with nose pointing in the air.”

Diaz, family members confirm, is obsessed with making his niece a limbo star. He monitors her workouts. He plans her diet. He composed the pulsating rhythmic island beat that has become Shemika’s stage signature. When she hears it, she limbos.

Shemika trains at her uncle’s home in Lancaster, where he lives with his wife, Mary. So far on this day, Shemika has consumed one banana and a home-made Caribbean milkshake the family calls Sea Moss. Jamaicans call it Irish Moss. Algae is its main ingredient. Mixed with milk, a dash of bitters, a dollop of heavy whipping cream and a hint of vanilla extract, it is Shemika’s natural energy drink.

Shemika can hold her breath for 120 seconds, Diaz proudly pointed out. It takes a fraction of that time to clear the bar — 15 seconds — depending on the floor. Resistance slows Shemika. She prefers to perform on a low-pile rug with rubberized backing.

“It’s all timing,” said Shemika. “When I go under the bar, I take a deep breath, and then as I go under, I let it out. Once I clear, I take a deep breath again so I can thrust myself up.”

The art of the dance

Conditioning is the most difficult part of limbo training, Shemika will tell you.

The fitness skills required to dance the limbo include core strength, balance and low back flexibility. Legs play a huge role with a handful of muscles — glutes, quadriceps, calves and hamstrings — combining for the series of power surges necessary for the dancer to drop down, under and spring back up.

“Doing the limbo you don’t necessarily need upper-body strength, but you need core strength to hold your body in position under the bar,” said fitness trainer Pat LaDuca, who compared the skill set to that of a trapeze artist. “You need strength and flexibility everywhere, and your feet absolutely have to be involved.”

The exercises Diaz dreams up to strengthen Shemika’s core and legs are anything but traditional. On some days, she will go to a local mall, where Shemika will climb the rock wall under the supervision of Diaz.

“She has to be suspended horizontally, and being female she has a little more weight on the upper part of her body,” Diaz explained, in a lilting island accent. “Her whole body is being supported by the muscles from her knee to her ankle.”

Conquering the bar

Shemika’s 15-second trip under the limbo bar is a testament to her strength, sense of balance and body awareness.

First comes the meditation, followed by Shemika addressing the pole. She’s gauging the distance between pole and floor, looking to the left, then to the right to ensure the pole is secure on two Labatt Blue beer bottles that anchor either end.

Shemika, who is 5-foot-9, centers herself, planting her long legs an equal distance between the bottle on the left and the bottle on the right. Her “nose point” is located at the middle of the bar.

As she makes her approach, weight transfer and breathing come into play. Like a snake Shemika undulates, holding her breath under the bar, and releasing it as she clears the bar— all the time “crawling” on the sides of her feet. She moves her head from side to side to let everyone know it is not touching the floor.

When she finishes, the power of her legs raises her body to a standing position, and she breathes again.

“I’m taller,” she said, “so I have a lot more to fit under the bar.”

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