Ex-Berkeley girl makes Bay Area homecoming — as circus aerialist

Sometimes the apple does fall far from the tree — and completes a triple-somersault in the process.

That’s the case with Shana Carroll, daughter of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. Rather than go into the business of writing wry reflections on Bay Area life, the Berkeley native headed in a far different direction. She decided to join the circus.

Really.

Shana Carroll, whose mother, Sandra Rosenzweig, is Jewish and who became a bat mitzvah, is today a world-class circus performer and one-time trapeze star with Cirque du Soleil.

Carroll makes her Bay Area debut next week when she and her touring company, 7 Fingers, open a two-week run at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.

7 Fingers is actually shorthand for “Les 7 Doigts de la Main” (The 7 Digits of the Hand). The French name makes sense considering the troop is based in Montreal (also home base for Cirque du Soleil), and several members — including Carroll’s husband — are French or French Canadian.

Like Cirque du Soleil, 7 Fingers puts on a show quite different from the generic American three-ring extravaganza. It’s all about grace, athleticism and making an art form of the human body. They blend acrobatics, juggling, clowning, poetry and song.

“Whereas Cirque du Soleil is very otherworldly, we wanted to make our show very human and down to earth,” says Carroll. “We use familiar daily objects and invite the audience to feel as if they’re in the room with us.”

Before her international circus career, Carroll admits she was just a normal Berkeley girl. Her father converted to Judaism after marrying Carroll’s mother, and both raised their daughter in a culturally rich Jewish home.

Carroll attended Hebrew school at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel, and later completed her bat mitzvah training at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El. She also attended Midrasha, the high-school program under the aegis of the East Bay federation’s Center for Jewish Living and Learning

“For a while, I even considered becoming a cantor,” she remembers.

As much as she connected to her Jewish roots, Carroll also fell in love with the performing arts at a young age. But it wasn’t until after graduating high school that she discovered the circus. And she has her father to thank.

“I hadn’t been very physical as a kid,” says Carroll. “I was more into theater and literature. But my father was on the board of the Pickle Family Circus. I needed work, and he suggested I take a job in the office. I immediately fell in love.”

From there, Carroll vaulted into a career as an aerialist, serving an apprenticeship at Pickle and learning the ropes, literally. “I had lots of encouragement,” she says. “My knowledge of trapeze was limited, so I set my goals on only what I could learn, setting up the trap on a bleacher truck and training at night.”

She later attended circus school in Montreal, and also spent a year studying in Paris. In 1994, she joined Cirque du Soleil as a back-up aerialist, and eventually became a featured performer in the hit show “Saltimbanco.” During her seven years of international touring, she gave 1,500 performances.

In 2001, Carroll left Cirque, dividing her time between teaching at the San Francisco Circus School and working with colleagues in Quebec and Paris.

Eventually, she and six other friends formed their own company. 7 Fingers is a team effort, with all seven founders sharing equal creative credit.

After all these years touring the world, Carroll never once had a chance to perform in the Bay Area until now, and she’s very excited about the homecoming.

As for her Jewish origins, they remain strong in her heart. “In circus, it’s impossible to live an observant life,” she says. “You have to perform on all the holidays and Shabbat. But being Jewish, I feel a connection to my heritage and my family. And for me, Jewish music goes right to my gut.”

7 Fingers performs 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17 to Saturday, Jan.3, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees at the Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco. Tickets: $20-$30. Information: (415) 392-4400 or www.cityboxoffice.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.