Main Piece: “So I did ballet for many years and usually when someone has a performance, at least where I grew up, you would say ‘break a leg!’ to wish them luck. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know where it came from. But…um… in dance we were never allowed to say ‘break a leg’ because that was an actual concern when dancing. So instead we said ‘merde’ which literally means ‘shit’ in French. So…um…before every show we would always whisper ‘merde’ to each other to wish everyone luck”
Background: The informant did ballet for many years in her hometown, Chicago. Whether the expression is specific to Chicago or to the lore of ballet is unclear. The informant is fluent in French but most of her friends in ballet did not speak any French. However, the majority of ballet terminology (i.e. different positions and movements) is French.
Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table.
My Thoughts: I understand the expression as occupational folklore. Knowing and using ‘merde’ is a rite of passage within the context of ballet and performance. Perhaps “merde” is ballet’s adaptation of “break a leg” used in theatre. I also grew up taking lessons in ballet and performing, but have not heard this term, which leads me to believe it is a term specific to the informant’s studio. Because most of the language in ballet is French, it is fitting that the dancer’s lore would be French as well. Even though “merde” has little relevance to ballet, it is consistent with the linguistics of the ballet studio. According to the informant, “merde” was whispered before each performance, so not only is this folklore occupational, it is ritualistic as well.
Informant (“A”) is a 19 year old, female from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and attends The University of Southern California. She is a Human Biology major. She is of European descent and her family includes her mother, father, and older brother who attends college in Texas. Informant has studied ballet for 17 years, including work in a professional company.
A: “…Now this one is going to sound really weird but recently there was a production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ and there was this kinda offensive song sung in it.
This sort of got turned into a backstage chant, and like I’ve also heard other people do this too. We all huddle in and whisper this ‘We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn, we’re gonna rape kill pillage and burn, eat the babies’. We say this multiple times getting louder each time until all of us are full on screaming it backstage. You know how people can like to scream vaguely offensive stuff, but its not that bad to us because we all know where it’s from. Then right before I go on stage I’ll do like a cross, you know the like Catholic one. I’m not really religious but I’ve been doing it for years. I think it started when I did a really hard solo and it had that cross in it. It basically tells me that I’ve done all I can and now I just have to perform. It’s another aspect of getting mentally ready, because so much of performing is about being physically but also mentally on your game.”
Analysis: The crossing seems to be a sort of parody of superstition. It may be an attempt to ‘use’ a previously accepted superstition in a socially accepted way or to comically parody their own use of superstition before the performance.
This backstage chant seems to be a sort of ‘trust building exercise’ that uses both humor and chanting to reinforce a sense of community. In high stress situations like ballet performances, such reinforcement likely serves to cater trust in other dancers, as the difference between an effective performance and a mishap could rely on other dancers.
Me: “Do people look for their specific lip marks when they come back?”
Informant: “Oh god no, it would be impossible to find them.”
In the informant’s ballet company, when a member was doing their last performance of a show (as in, your last ever Nutcracker performance), it was tradition to put on bright red lipstick and kiss a specific wall, leaving a mark. The mark not only signified you were a part of the show, but was symbolic of a part of you always being tied to the company. People would come back years after graduating to visit the wall they had kissed previously.
The informant was involved in ballet through most of her life and knows a lot about the secrets and traditions carried with being a part of a ballet company. She takes them all very seriously and indicates that most all of the other dancers did as well. According to the informant, everyone kissed the wall at some point as long as they were in the company for a full run of a show. The informant wasn’t clear about exactly when you kissed the wall — it was after the show, but not necessarily directly after completion. Additionally, the go-to action didn’t used to be kissing the wall. The tradition used to be signing it, but it got too messy, so the lip marks were the evolved method.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this piece of folklore is that the tradition changed from signing the wall to kissing it, for reason of “the signing got too messy,” according to the informant. It’s perhaps telling of how significant or deeply rooted a tradition is when the reason for completely changing it is one of rather minor inconvenience.
Me: “At what age did that start? I feel like it’s a little weird to encourage six year old girls to run around saying ‘shit’ in French.”
Informant: “Hahah no no it started when you were like officially in a show at the company, like as an apprentice.”
The methods for creating good luck for a ballet performance is much different than creating good luck for a theatre performance. Saying “break a leg” is terrible luck in a ballet studio. Instead, you say “merde”. The informant says her instructor rationalizes it by simply stating “Shit happens. So we face it by saying it right off the bat.” The word is said just before a performance. In addition to saying “merde”, the dancers would snap the should strap of their leotard for good luck.
The informant was involved in ballet through most of her life and knows a lot about the secrets and traditions carried with being a part of a ballet company. She takes them all very seriously and indicates that most all of the other dancers did as well. For this particular one, it was important to do this and everyone participated without fail.
It’s not surprising that ballet has traditions that revolve around the same concepts as traditions in theatre. It’s also reasonable that, given the rather strict nature of ballet instruction, everyone follows these rules and swears by them in her company. The incorporation of French make complete sense, although the vulgarity being the primary luck-bringing mechanic is unexpected. She participated in this one ballet company for her whole experience, so it’s unclear if the replacement of phrases is exclusive to her or not.
When wishing my informant good luck for her ballet performance, she corrected me and told me to tell ballet dancers “Mérde“ instead. The following is a transcript of our interview:
“Informant: In show business, if you want to tell someone good luck before a show, the common phrase is to say “break a leg”. If you’re a musician, or an actor, you’re main instrument for performance isn’t necessarily your legs. You could still play piano with a broken leg, but for dancers legs are vital. As much as this is something that inspires luck, this made dancers feel uneasy because it is exactly what they want never to happen. Instead, dancers say “mérde” before a show. This is the French word for “shit.”
While I don’t know the formal reason for why this particular word is picked, I though one of the Senior members of my company explained it well when he said that “when you’re performing live on a stage in front of an audience, shit happens. So, we say ‘Mérde.’
My informant said, “ I am very paranoid about injuries personally, and before a show people push themselves really hard so to have an injury right before a performance is the worst imaginable situation, so I get very uncomfortable when people say break a leg. It makes me much more nervous. But I’ve always like ‘Mérde’ because it has a bit of humor to it and more of a sense of ‘this is how things are going to be, and it will be okay because it is just going to happen.’ “
Saying “Mérde“ serves several purposes. It plays a role as a superstition, a way of avoiding the homeopathic magic of “break a leg.” On the other hand, since this folk saying is reserved for ballet dancers, it reinforces one’s identity in the group. Furthermore, the word, French based, connects to ballet in general – according to my informant ballet vocabulary is all in French. Thus, this produces an air of authenticity to performances, linking ballet dances everywhere to ballets home, France. Also, reflects a lesson necessary for dancers: stage performances rarely run perfectly, so it is vital that, if problems occur, the show continues. On another note, running around and swearing, breaking societal rules, excites those saying it, assuaging pre-performance nervousness.