USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Merde’
Folk Beliefs

Don’t Break a Leg in Ballet


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.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Mérde: Wishing Good Luck to Ballet Dancers


Folk saying/Superstition

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.