Listen to the full interview on our podcast!

by Athlete Voices Podcast

Shelli Epstein is a former gymnast, acrobat, Cirque du Soleil artist, personal trainer, performance coach, life coach, author and motivational speaker. She began her circus career at age 18, landing her first gig in Macau’s famous House of Dancing Water show. She has since toured the world, flipping, diving, and flying on a Cirque du Soleil show. Shelli recently released her first book, “Flying High: Life lessons from the Big Top”, a memoir that details her life as a circus artist and the wisdom she’s gained through life in the spotlight.

Q: What was your background before circus?

A: I started my career as a competitive artistic gymnast. Then I switched to something called display gymnastics, which is tumbling, group choreography, dancing, and sports acro. I did display gymnastics from the age of 12-18. And then I auditioned for the House of Dancing Waters in Macau, and I left home at 18 to pursue this dream. I eventually made it to Cirque du Soleil which was my ultimate dream.

Q: Did you audition for The House of Dancing Water as a gymnast? 

I auditioned as a generalist. I made it past day one and got to day two, which was in a swimming pool, and then we did some interviews. It was a whole new language for me. I got a call in January 2012, and they said, “Yep you got the job!” I said, “Mom, Dad, I’m moving to China!” I withdrew my university application. My heart wasn’t set on any of the courses, it was just the thing to do. I’m so happy that I didn’t go to uni and I followed my dream and made a career out of it, rather than doing a three year course that might not benefit me. You can always go back to school later, and I did, during the time of COVID.” 

Q: The most important thing is that you don’t have any regrets, right? 

A: Exactly. Doubt never crossed my mind. When I got offered the job there was no question that I was going to take it. My parents didn’t try to stop me. I was really fortunate they’ve always been very supportive. They do not have a circus background.

Q: What was it like moving to a brand new country by yourself at 18? 

A: As a kid, I was born in Israel and moved to the UK at a very young age. When I was 7, we moved back to Israel, then moved back to the UK when I was 10. I knew from a young age how to say goodbye to people. It’s always “See you soon,” never a permanent [goodbye]. That helped me feel comfortable moving and being away. I’ve always been very independent as well. 

Q: Tell me about training for The House of Dancing Water. 

A: First we did a 3 month training program in Belgium, where the headquarters of the company was located. We arrived in the middle of nowhere. It was just a warehouse. The training facilities were absolutely phenomenal. You go to work and go to bed. That was my life [for those 3 months]. I was also finishing school, so I left a couple times to take my exams. Whereas others had free time, I was studying. It was pretty full on and hectic. The training studio was so cool, like something out of the movies. They built a 10 meter dive tower, and we learned how to scuba dive. We did Russian swing, harness work, trapeze, hand to hand, strength and conditioning, dance workshops, and acting classes. It was crazy, hard, and painful, but we made it through to the other side. I learned everything that I can do now in those 3 months that built my foundation. Later on, I specialized in different skills. 

Q: What was it like transitioning from gymnastics to water disciplines? 

A: For gymnasts, they don’t expect you to do head first entries because we aren’t divers. As a gymnast you have great spatial awareness and know exactly where you are in the air. We did trampoline to water in order to understand having more air time; in gymnastics things are a lot quicker than in diving. I love being a flyer! 

Q: Your speciality now is in Russian swing. Tell us about this discipline and how you got into it. 

A: In Macau I flew Russian swing to water. I now specialize in Russian swing to swing, which is two giant swinging pendulums, one on left and one on right. In the middle is just free space. On one swing is a pusher, and on the other is a catcher. The flyer will load at the front of the swing. When the flyer calls their up, the pusher will pull the swing back and on the next swing the pusher will push the flyer off the swing and flyer does their release. The flyer flies through the air across the empty space. The catcher lifts their swing to make sure the feet of the flyer will meet the swing when they land. Flyer lands and can take a couple swings to get off the swing. 

We were all expected to do [Russian swing]. [In the beginning] it wasn’t something I loved, it scared me. I did what was required. 

Q: How did you get into Cirque du Soleil? 

A: I applied to Cirque with my trapeze training partner. They contacted him and said they needed a male porter. He asked, “What about Shelli?” They said, “No, not right now.” Later [Cirque] contacted me and said that they had a position for a character role and Russian swing. I was like, “I would never do that, are you crazy?” Eventually I told myself to just say yes, because it’s my dream to work for this company. 

I understood that [Cirque] was the safest place for me to learn Russian swing. It was scary, but it was something I managed to overcome. The more you do something the risk factor eliminates. 

Q: Have you or anyone you know ever gotten injured doing Russian swing? 

A: [Between swings] is just mats underneath, there is no net. Unfortunately I sustained a severe injury in January and am still recovering. I tore my lisfranc and deltoid ligament. I’m back walking fairly recently. I’m regaining strength and trying to build back to running and jumping so I can, as stupid as it may sound, get back to flying again. [Injury] is just part of what we do. We know [our job] comes with a risk factor. 

Q: In terms of COVID, how did you get through the pandemic while Cirque du Soleil shows were shut down? 

A: With COVID it was a weird situation. Everyone always dreams of having the gift of time until you’re given it, and you don’t know what to do with it. I had been a qualified personal trainer for about 6 years but I never really stepped my foot into it. This was my backup plan, so I decided to use it and see if I liked it. I applied to a couple gyms, set up my online business, taught online zoom classes and ran sessions three times a week. I never went to university so I studied Sport Psychology with Open University online. I started writing my book. I am now training to be a life coach. I would love eventually to integrate life coaching with sport psychology, and my biggest goal is targeting high level athletes and performers and help them transition out of their field. [The transition] can be mentally challenging, like dealing with an identity crisis. “Who am I? My job doesn’t define me, but it’s  a massive part of my life.” If I can help in any way [with the transition], that’s what I want to do.

Q: Tell me about your experience originating the role of Running Woman on Luzia (Cirque Du Soleil). 

A: I was 21 when I started with Cirque du Soleil. When I auditioned I was not expecting a character role. I’m a generalist. I didn’t know if I could pull this off. The director, Daniele, said he saw something in my eyes [during the audition]. The Running Woman– I always speak about her rather than me– is an alter ego of sorts. There are so many attributes she holds, like her confidence and ability to own the stage, that I’m like, “I wish I were more like her.” It was really cool to represent a powerful female character. 

Q: One central topic of your motivational speaking is that of fear and how to deal with it. Tell me more about how you’ve managed to overcome fear. 

A: Everyone can relate to fear, regardless of how big or small it is. A lot of it is learned so it can be unlearned as well. Your body will have natural responses to fear– increased heart rate, sweaty palms, faster breathing– and on the opposite side of that, people just freeze. 

If I were to think about Russian swing right now, I could give myself all the symptoms. One of my favorite exercises I do is I close my eyes and I can see the stage, where the audience sits, the swing, and myself. I picture the perfect jump and what I want the outcome to be. The outcome has to be a positive one. If it is a negative one you should not be flying, as you are putting yourself in danger for many reasons.

Fear will always be there, but you gotta learn to use it to heighten your performance, not hinder it. It is your body’s way to tell you how to assess a situation and is there for a reason. For Russian swing, when [fear] is present, I say, “Okay, I hear you, but I know I can do this.” I suppress the nerves through breathing techniques. I close my eyes and do imagery.”

Q: You wrote a book during COVID! That’s so exciting! Tell me about it. 

A: I wrote Flying High: Life Lessons from the Big Top during lockdown 1. It tells the story of my life journey from seeing a Cirque du Soleil show when i was a kid, and saying, “Mom and Dad, that’s what I want to do,” then taking it to the stage many years later and being the person on the stage inspiring, where I once was the one sitting being inspired. Initially it was a form of catharsis. I was just writing, not really for a purpose. I gave it to my dad and he was like, “You know, Shelli, you have a story to tell. Develop it.”

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring circus performers? 

A: If it’s your dream, hard work will pay off. It’s gonna be a journey, it’s gonna be hard, it’s gonna hurt, but if you want it enough you will persevere through all of that. I still have no words for what I was able to do. I was living my best life being able to perform and inspire. Know that you will be able to do that for the next generation. No dream is too big.