Nationality: United States of America
Residence: Kansas City, MO
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/10/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish
Saying “Merde” to ballet dancers in place of “Good luck” or “Break a leg”
This saying was told to me by my informant who has participated in various dance groups for close to 13 years. She is most formally trained in ballet through a local performing arts center known as KCYA. She learned this saying growing up through this system and hearing it said by those with more experience as well as through her mother who used to perform ballet as well. The idea is that traditionally, ballet dancers would perform in large operas visited by upper class individuals and nobility. Due to their primary method of transport being horse-drawn carriage, the ideal situation was to see a lot of horse droppings outside as it meant a lot of people were coming to see the performance and merde means shit in French, where a lot of ballet originated. While obviously this does not apply now, it stuck around as a method of saying good luck for ballet specifically.
Having known my informant for several years, I knew of the phrase but did not know the context or the literal translation for several years until she told me after a performance. I asked her to tell me even more during a recent phone call conversation which is how I got most of my information above.
I feel this piece examplarizes the use of folklore as a means of determining who is in or outside of a community. While ballet could be as easily grouped in with other performing arts, those within the community use this a way of identifying themselves as unique. This identity is also supported by the phrase’s history with ballet as it goes as far back as the perceived glory days of ballet where it was performed for nobility. In this regard, saying merde to other dancers is a method of keeping the tradition of ballet alive. Finally, my informant believes that the use of this phrase over the traditional “break a leg” is also in part a result of avoiding any superstition concerning any bodily harm coming to the dancer. Ballet dancers must endure severe physical exercise to perform their dances and while “break a leg” does not mean to literally break a leg, the superstition is that by even saying that it might cause one to suffer an injury and be unable to dance ballet again. In this regard, the phrase also shows the elitism sometimes displayed with ballet wherein they require those with the most skill and physical ability to be able to perform.