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: “Dancers, and, really, it seems most theater people in general, have a lot of rituals and superstitions. The theater can be sort of unpredictable you know? You could have rehearsed every day for a year and something can still go wrong during the show. Especially when you throw nervousness into the mix, things definitely can happen. Sometimes it feels like half of what we can accomplish is just because we were lucky.
The whole time up there you’re praying ‘’Don’t fall, don’t fall down’’, even if you’ve never fallen before, you just don’t know. And you’re not only relying on yourself too. Sometimes as a dancer you just jump and hope your partner catches you! If they’re not in the zone, things can end badly for you. Anyway basically performing is scary and a lot of dancers do things to try and make it less scary.
The first ritual is called Green Room. It’s where the whole cast meets together backstage and we all form, sort of a circle. The oldest member will then say something inspiring, whatever the cast needs at the moment. Then we all hold hands and do that thing where you, like… squeeze the persons hand next to you until it goes all the way around the circle again. This connects us, because like I said you have to rely on other people. Sometimes during this we pass around this green frog you have to kiss, I have no idea why. Then we all do a chant. Depending on the group or show the chant varies..”
Analysis: The superstition seems like a classic example of using a ritual to gain favorable luck of some sort for an event of particular importance. A way to increase control of an event whose failure would be very bad for the performer. It also seems to play quite an important part in binding the dance company together to allow increased trust amongst them. By reinforcing such a sense of community, it increases trust and belonging, things one likely needs if they’re putting themselves in such risky position as a public performance.
About the Interviewed: Davey is a student at the George Washington University double-majoring in English and LGBT Studies. His ethnic background hails from Spain. At the time of this interview, he was currently on leave at his home in Southern California. He is biologically male, but he identifies as gender-queer. Nonetheless, he prefers male pronouns. He is 20 years old.
My friend Davey moonlights as a Drag Performer. I asked if he could define what drag is.
Davey: “Well, everything is drag, that’s what RuPaul [drag icon] says. To most people, it’s just dudes dressing up as girls, which is like, kind-of what it is, but not really. It’s a statement on gender, it’s a statement on performing. People come to drag shows dressed as men, people come as women, people come as whatever the hell they want, that’s what drag is. It’s an illusory gender performance. Men and women both dress as things you can’t describe. Men become Queens, Women become Kings, some become things that you can’t describe.”
I asked him if he could describe what a performance is like.
Davey: “That depends on the queen. When I go out there, I lipsync to songs by Rihanna, Beyonce – I like to be fierce. Most queens lipsync, some don’t. Some actually sing live, if their voice is pretty enough. Those are the fishy queens.”
I asked Davey what “Fishy” means.
Davey: (laughs) “Oh lordy! It means vagina. The more fishy you are, the more you look like a real woman in dress and make-up. Some queens try really hard to be fishy. I don’t have the make-up, or the skills. Yet.”
We then talked about Davey’s personal experiences as a drag queen.
Davey: “Well for starters, I’ve never performed at one of the [drag] clubs. You have to be pretty much be top shit to get in these days. I’ve just done it for parties and things. Just for fun.”
I asked him if the pursuit of “fishiness” was about emulating a standard of beauty.
Davey: “Yeah, I mean, everybody wants to be a supermodel, but I just wanna have fun. I think that as a drag performer, we’re attracted to these images of grandeur and beauty, and some respond by mocking it and others try to become it. It all depends on how you interpret it. It’s art. It’s meant to be that way.”
Drag is a performance that plays with the notion of Gender in Western Society. Performances take the form of wild cabaret shows, that showcase vibrant individuals who dress in ways that denounce typical gender norms. Drag can either be a form of Male to Female impersonation, or it can be something crazy and hard to pinpoint. Davey defines drag as a visual art.
As an artist myself, I resonated with Davey’s final statement on gender performance – that art is meant to be multi-faceted. Even within cultures, the meaning of certain performances or pieces of folklore are heavily debated. Ultimately, it’s up to the audience to pick and choose which elements resonate the strongest within themselves.
“During my college years in the mid 80’s I was a member of a ‘Tuna” group in Spain. A “Tuna” is a group of university or college students who dress in traditional costumes and play traditional instruments and sing serenades. In essence the tradition of this student tuna band or ensembles seems to go back to the 13th century as reflected in some of the medieval literature. That’s how we know the 13th century part because some of the literature alludes to these roaming student ensembles who would play music largely to earn money. They would sing and in some place they were known as “sopantes” de “sopa” (soup). Like soup kitchens that we have here; people would feed them for free. So sometimes they were known as “sopantes.” So this tradition of these student ensembles was typical of Spain and Portugal and it made its way even to the Americas through Spain. So in Mexico and Peru and all of these countries that were part of the Spanish empire, when the Spanish came and founded their universities here. In 1551 Emperor Charles V granted the charter which established the university of San Marcos in Lima, Peru to other old universities like Mexico City and Santo Domingo. So the tradition spread into the countries of the Americas that way. Today this tradition has even spread into the Netherlands as well. Over time the original purpose of these ensembles disappeared. The students weren’t doing these serenades to get money, largely but it became established as a venerable tradition on university campuses. And like by the 19th century already they were established as a cultural activity or enterprise on campuses. It was now sponsored on the campuses like a club or a school marching band. And membership was through trial; you had to pass. Not only music but pranks and stuff too. All of these things were involved in being admitted into “Le Tuna.” Now the tradition is that each school like Medicine, Architecture, Humanities, Law, you know all of these, have their own. And the colors are set for each field or discipline. I think Medicine is yellow. Basic science is usually royal blue. But there’s green and red. So no matter if it’s from different universities, the schools have the same colors. The costumes are kind of old fashioned and reminiscent of Renaissance, 16th century. So the costumes include a cloak, a ‘dublet,’ which is a tight fitting jacket almost like a bolero jacket that goes on top of a white shirt that has big cuffs and collar, they are like puffy. And then the pants are called petticoat britches, Spanish britches that are fitted right under the knee. And then there’s tights, stockings and also pointy black shoes and the most important thing is the so called “beca.” The “beca” is a V-shaped band that goes over the shoulders and on top of the jacket. The color of it is characteristic of the field. And then on top of everything you wear a big, long cloak, typical of the 16th century. Each ‘tuno,’ pins ribbons of different colors and seals or coat of arms patches that are sewn on of all of the cities and countries that the group has played in. The ribbons are usually given by girls to the “tuno.” But the seals or the coat of arms from places are collected through the traveling. So the amount of ribbons and patches on the cloak tells you already about the ensemble member. Those that are seasoned will have their cloaks nearly covered with patches. And those who are more popular with girls with have more ribbons *chuckles*. Traditionally, the girl who gives the ribbon would embroider messages onto them for example, “para el tuno mas simpatico” (for the most charming tuno) or “para el tuno mas guapo” (for the most handsome tuno). Mothers, aunts, grandmothers and sweethearts would give the ribbons.
The instruments consist of typical Spanish guitars, but also combine other traditional string instruments like “el laud” y “la banduria” and also, very typically tambourines. The tambourines are the quintessential ‘Tuna’ instrument. Also some “Tuna’s” use accordions. Ive’ seen on television that Mexican “Tuna’s” have incorporated the typical Mexican, “guitarron.”
There is not agreement as to the origin of the name. Some trace it to the King of Tunis in north Africa. The tradition says that there might have been a “King Tunez” who was very fond of music and was sort of a vagabond and would like to walk around the streets playing and singing. So apparently sometime in the middle ages or the Renessaince the term “you’re a king of Tunis” would be given to the leader of an itinerant band. But most people think it comes from the Spanish word “tunante” which is almost like a villain, a rogue but you can also use it with children like in English when we say “you little scamp.” “Tunante” has the connotation of mischievous yet playful, not necessarily malicious because we use it often with children. From the word “tunante” could have evolved the word “tuno.” So the group of “tunos” became “La Tuna,” the band of “tunos.” But nobody really knows for sure.
They play lots of traditional “folk” music. Many of the songs are “tuna” folk songs but also many others are just other traditional songs that the play in their serenades. In modern times, “tunos” incorporate some more modern, popular music. One of the most typical songs in any ‘tunas’ repertoire is “La Compostelana.” It’s a song named after the “Tuna Compostelana.” Compostelana comes from Santiago de Compostela. Which is the city of Saint James in northern Spain that has one of the best known and well established universities in Spain, founded in 1495. So this song that every ‘tuna’ plays has a line that says “Que cada cinta que adorna mi capa guarda un trocito de corazon.” Which means: every ribbon that decorates my cloak, holds a piece of heart. So that’s where the idea of the ribbon comes from.
It’s interesting that today in modern, recent times the ‘tunas’ have nearly regained or gone back to the idea of playing to earn money. Because now it’s not uncommon that they are hired by people for institutions or special events, such as weddings or other celebrations and even special events. For example when there are foreign dignitaries that come to Spain or for conventions to serenade visitors. While I was “tuno” we got hired to do two weddings. I was kind of like the ‘buffoon’ of the group. I would be the one cracking all the jokes and had the tambourine. I was directly engaging the audiences. The lead of the group is the one who introduces the band, cracks jokes, talks with the audience, with the girls, does acrobatic jumps and throws the tambourine around. ”
Can you tell me about some of the initiation processes or pranks you mentioned?:
“The selection process when someone wants to be a part of the ‘tuna’ starts with musical skills. Do you know how to play an instrument? Can you sing reasonably? There’s also usually tests to see if the person is shy and able to be out late at night and interacting with audiences. They’re not usually cruel though. Like standing out on the street in your underwear. Or asking a guy to take a ‘clavel,’ a carnation and profess your love to a random girl. Or to play out in the street and ask people to put money in your hat. These tests were kind of embarrassing but not meant to be overly cruel, more to test for an outgoing personality of a member. Oh and I forgot to tell you, some of the bigger groups take summer tours. Some of them have lots of prestige and are like institutions and go on tours abroad or just in Spain. ”
So the group didn’t only sing songs, there was dancing and performance involved?
“Yes, at a certain point the “tunos” get girls from the audience to dance. They play paso dobles and take women out to dance with them. Sometimes it’s in auditoriums but others it’s out in the street or they might go to an airport or something.”
I had seen this picture of my dad before and knew it was from his days of being a “tuno.” But I didn’t have anymore details than that. It was really fun for me to hear about my dad’s memories from college, right about when he was my age. It appears that this tradition in Spanish universities is similar to the American college tradition of fraternities. In both they form a close group and have some forms of initiations, but the ‘Tuna” has a musical and performance aspect that the fraternities lack. As his daughter I only get to see tidbits of his humor, but knowing that he played the lead of the group and/or buffoon makes absolute sense. It was also entertaining for me to watch him giggle when he started explaining the interactions “La Tuna” would have with women. It was my impression that he was popular with the ladies, although he didn’t explicitly admit that.
Here is another explanation of the “Tuna” tradition: http://www.donquijote.org/culture/spain/society/customs/tuna.asp
“So, the enchilada recipe started with my grandma. She concocted this, beautiful enchilada sauce, and then she passed it down to my mom, and she made some alterations… and in my opinion, it’s the best. And then now, it’s my term to make the sauce, and I guess I add my own twist to it. But, um… what’s in the sauce: you have your… um, red peppers. The dried ones, they’re long, I don’t even know what they are, I just know how they look. They’re long and dried up and they have tons of seeds and you take the seeds out and you boil them… so they get plump, you know? And then you boil them with garlic… you take most of [the seeds] out so it’s not too spicy. So you throw that in there with garlic, and tomatoes, and onions… that’s all cooked. Together. And then you throw that all in there [a blender], and then you add sugar, and water, and… the secret, is the chocolate. It’s a special kind of chocolate, it’s the Abuelita chocolate, and you cut a chunk off and you throw it in there. And that’s the sauce and it’s the most amazing thing I have tasted in my life.”
She described how her mom tweaks the recipe.
“She, um, she… no, my grandma makes it way more savory, mom makes it sweeter and spicier. So, like, you get those extremes, the sweet and the spicy. My grandma is just more a less like… I feel like that one’s more like… like, smooth? You know what I mean? Like, it’s mellow. But it’s savory, you can taste the garlic, she puts a little more garlic in it. But, umm… and she makes it a little runnier. My mom makes it real thick. That’s the difference between the two of them. My mom adds more chocolate too because I like chocolate [laughs]. But you don’t taste chocolate at all.”
The informant felt that the recipe is very important to her because it was her culture (the recipe itself as well as Mexican food generally was her culture and her family). She explained that everything is regional in Mexico, so no one used the exact recipe that her mother and grandmother used. She said that her mother’s sisters and great-aunt all used similar recipes that were derived from the same ingredients, but that they were all completely different, and that she hoped, with experimentation, her version of the recipe would please her future family.
The sauce recipe, as well as all other foods prepared by her family, are made with ingredients that are measured by eye. The performance of this recipe, is thus, always subject to change (more change than the written recipe) because it is made for specific reasons and specific people (for example, the informant’s mother adds extra chocolate for her daughter because she prefers it). The sharing and modification of recipes present in the performance of this recipe is central to most cultures now, and is indicative of the fusion of different cultural foods because it is a representation of changes made to older forms.
“I remember, we would wake up friggin’ early ass in the morning, and then, we would, like, warm up together and do the butterflies, with, like, our legs crossed, and we would, like, flutter, I don’t know… It’s a stretch, and um… then for some reason, we’d be okay, like, all the little girls, you’d see, like smiling, like oOOoOo… and then we’d do, like, the little circle—the arm circle things, and like you know, you were flying somewhere, like I could just imagine that. I was seven, that was, that was fun. It was fun, pretending to be a butterfly for a little while… because I guess you’re supposed to be graceful, with gymnastics in some sense.”
The informant recounted a stretching ritual she would perform with her gymnastics peers at the beginning of each class as something to help break the ice that existed between them at the beginning of the session. She found it especially helped shy or quiet kids and enabled her to talk to her friends after the moment of silliness (her and her peers pretending to be butterflies). She thought it might serve a purpose for her as a college student (“Like, can’t we all do butterflies in class, like, the first day of class?”).
I agree with the informant that a shared performance represents an opportunity for conversation because it creates a shared experience. This is similar, perhaps, to other types of “ice-breaker” performances for adults (which are often other sorts of games), though it has the added benefit of being an exercise.