Break a Leg Ritual

“So this is like the traditional ‘break a leg!’ before a performance, because I’m a theater major. But before any type of performance, instead of just saying ‘break a leg,’ the performing group that I grew up in since I was a kid to high school, we always would say ‘break ALL your legs.’ As like a way of saying ‘you’re even gonna do better than just break a leg, like you’re gonna have a phenomenal performance.’ And then we would- I don’t know how to explain this properly, but we basically lock our pinky fingers together, and then like, bump each other’s hips, each hip twice, and then like, spin, like, turn with our arms. And I was like- everyone in the group that I grew up in performing did this, um, and was incredibly superstitious about it. It was a thing of like, even if you were called to places, you would run backstage to the other side of the stage to find the other people in the cast to do it to. Because it was an incredibly, like, you HAVE to do this. Like, if not something’s gonna go wrong. Um, and so I was incredibly superstitious about it. Like if I didn’t get the chance to do it to everyone, I, like, I was not comfortable on stage and I was like ‘something’s gonna go wrong, I’m gonna mess up, just it’s not gonna be the performance I know it can be.’

And now that I’m in college and I’m not part of this performing group anymore, I still carry it on. Um, especially with this one, like, performance group I’m part of. Backstage before every show that I’ve started since freshman year doing, I teach it to like anyone who’s new in the group, and I do it with as many people in the cast as I can do, and I even like, explain the story of it to people, like ‘this is something I used to do in my past performing community that I was a part of, and we’d say break all your legs,’ and I teach it to them and then like, they go on to do it to other people in the cast and explain it to them. So it’s something I’m like carrying on and spreading to other people.”

C is a current student at the University of Southern California and grew up in Palm Desert, California. She gave the context that she had been part of the same local theater group for her preteen and teenage years until coming to college. When asked to elaborate about some of the logistics of the ritual, C explained how the ritual would be done between two people in the cast, with the goal of everyone in the cast eventually doing it with everyone else. She also stressed the importance of performing the ritual as immediately before the beginning of the performance as possible. She also described how different people in her original group believe in different degrees of consequences for not performing the ritual with everyone in the cast; while some people think it is not strictly necessary, many, including C, believe that there will be “severe and immediate consequences” during the performance for not doing it with everyone. Finally, C explained that, while she is not sure when the ritual began, allegedly everyone who her director had worked with had a similar kind of ritual, which leads her to believe it stemmed from him and evolved to what it is today.

As C acknowledged, this tradition takes a widely-known example of theater-specific performative speech and adds an additional physical element as added superstitious behavior. I would say that this ritual combines elements of homeopathic and contagious magic. By believing that not performing this ritual correctly induces bad luck, this theater group exhibits the ‘like produces like’ belief behind homeopathic magic; however, the contact required for the ritual, perhaps to ‘share luck’ amongst the cast, suggests that the connection between two cast members lingers after contact, which is characteristic of contagious magic. There also seems to be an added dimension of promoting the group’s strength and unity; by requiring everyone in the cast to perform this bad-luck-warding behavior together, it reinforces the idea that the group is stronger together. Ultimately, I think this ritual is a perfect example of the multiplicity and variation that is often said to be a core component of folklore, and I would be interested to see if/how this ritual changes after its introduction to USC theater spaces.