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.