And now, something completely different

How does performing in the circus help one overcome one's social anxiety? One Israeli athlete shares her insights about the connection between body and spirit.

Shai Ramot: Circus performing as therapy. (photo credit: INBAR ROTHSCHILD)
Shai Ramot: Circus performing as therapy.
(photo credit: INBAR ROTHSCHILD)
What do you do if you are so shy and anxious around other people that you are barely capable of doing something as simple as buying falafel or even looking directly at the man behind the counter? How do you deal with suffering from social anxiety so intense that you are unable to speak to people clearly and just mumble nervously instead? Well, if you are a young Israeli woman named Shai Ramot, you join the circus. And, surprisingly enough, being in the circus makes you better.
Now 34 years old, Ramot grew up in Beit Zayit, not far from Jerusalem, and then Hod Hasharon. She now lives in Tel Aviv with her same-sex partner and their 10-month-old baby girl. Ramot has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and gender from Tel Aviv University, and after studying circus performing at the Sandciel Circus School of the Wingate Institute, has been a circus artist for eight years, specializing in single rope and double trapeze aerial acrobatics. Although “acrobatics” may not be quite the right word for performances that are, for Ramot, more about therapy and self-expression.
We caught up with her recently as she was preparing to perform on a rope high up in the air at the Bat Yam Street Theater and Art Festival. Expecting a difficult interview with someone too shy to be able to carry on a conversation, we find instead what appears to be a very outgoing young woman with a broad smile and infectious laugh.
Asked what got her interested in circus performing, of all things, Ramot laughs and replies, “I started by wanting to study therapy. I started finding my way trying to find out what I really want to do. Then I realized that I don’t want to be a psychologist. I wanted to be a dance therapist. I started dancing and realized that it wasn’t enough for me. So I went to the circus school.
It began as a hobby, once a week. At the end of the first year, we had a show. Then I realized I really like it. I liked watching the people, I like them watching me – and the applause at the end, even though I was really not good that first year.”
While Ramot may have been “really not good” at the beginning, her turn to circus performing was evidently good for her.
“I didn’t realize it was therapy at the beginning, but it did make me feel better, using my own abilities, which are better than things I’m not good at. Because I’m not really good at talking. I went to a few psychologists. My partner is also a psychologist. Talking really isn’t the best way for me. Movement is the best way for me.
“I also really enjoy the audience. I get the feedback really fast. What social anxiety makes you feel is that people are judging you. When I get judged by the audience, getting smiles and applause, I feel better.”
So what exactly does one study at a circus school? Ramot says, “You study dance, circus and acting. Those three areas – and in each area you study different things. In ‘circus’ you study clowning. You study physical theater and juggling and aerial acrobatics and dancing. You study everything and in the second and third year you get to your specialty. I studied rope and double trapeze. You learn how to perform, how to do better performances in front of an audience.”
The circus environment in which Ramot performs, however, is not like the circuses that many of us remember experiencing as children. It might, in fact, be more properly called something like “new circus.”
Says Ramot, “Now it’s more of a modern kind of circus. So we don’t have animals. I do more intimate kinds of shows. For example, I did a show with Orit Nevo with Circus ON, the Contemporary Circus Creation Center in Hadera. Circus now is about trying to say what you want to say and trying to react to what’s happening in the world, or in your world, in a circus way.”
Asked whether what she does is essentially a form of interpretive dance, Ramot thinks for a moment and replies, “For me it’s not too far from this. I use my body and the rope to say things, but I’m not such a good dancer. I dance on the rope. Using these abilities makes the audience more likely to like me. Doing dance on the rope looks better than on the ground.”
As the interview progresses, we can’t help but think that this lifelong sufferer of extreme social anxiety seems to be conversing impressively well. Ramot responds to this observation with a confession.
“Talking is not my best way of doing things. I feel anxiety that other people don’t see when they are talking to me. My heart pounds and I feel like I’m struggling to speak. I feel like I’m mumbling.”
Mumbling is, in fact, the title of a show she has performed in the past.
For her aerial acrobatics show in Bat Yam, Ramot began her preparations by filling out a questionnaire.
Yes, you read that correctly. She decided to assess and quantify her various manifestations of social anxiety by consulting the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale (LSAS), which, according to its proponents, “assesses the way that social phobia plays a role in your life across a variety of situations.” The Liebowitz Scale presents a list of situations such as telephoning in public, eating in public places, giving a talk in front of an audience, going to a party, and meeting strangers, to which one is supposed to check one of the following measures of anxiety: none, mild, moderate, or severe.
Ramot answered the questions, studied her responses, and put together an aerial rope performance based on the results.
“From this I built my show – doing things that make me anxious in the show. I started doing each one of the questions, then 10 questions. But the work got a life of its own. People won’t know that it comes from the questionnaire, but they will understand the anxiety. I’m curious to know what they will feel, but I won’t be spoon-feeding them. It’s more amorphic.”
How would she like the audience to react? “First of all, I want them to stay. Since it’s outside and people come and go, it’s not really intimate. So I would really like them to stay. I don’t do some kind of big rope act. I do things that are a bit different. It’s not like a ‘proper’ circus act. I am trying to say something.”
The show is called Good Enough.
How does one make a living as a circus performer here in Israel, and how does Israel compare with other countries in the opportunities provided to practitioners of this art form? “In the circus life in Israel you have do all sorts of things in order to do your real art,” Ramot says.
“In France you get money if you are a circus artist; you have to perform a few times a year. You get money each month. And you do have more places to perform in. Europe is more developed in circus life, but now Israel is getting better. There are more circus artists, more place to perform, more money. But overall in Israel you don’t make much money as a circus artist and performer.”
Might she be a sort of inspirational example for other people suffering from social anxiety? “No, I don’t see myself that way. I’m pretty sure that there are people with social anxiety who suffer much more than I do. I think that the way I deal with it is an interesting way for people to try. It helps me, so maybe it could be good for others.”
Ramot does admit to having career ambitions as a dance therapist, years from now, when she is “too old to perform.” Judging from her performance abilities today, that will not be happening any time in the near future.