So…Ole and Lena go to the ballet…and after a little bit Ole leans over to Lena and whispers ‘why are they dancing on their toes? Couldn’t they have just gotten taller dancers?’”
Ole and Lena jokes represent a canon of humor found in the Upper Midwest region of the United States (Including North Dakota, the birthplace of my informant). All of these jokes generally center around a married couple – Ole and Lena – and can vary dramatically in length. While not true of every single “Ole and Lena” joke, many of these jokes feature sexual innuendos or blue humour.
My informant heard many of these Ole and Lena jokes growing up, both on the playground from other kids, and from her parents and parents’ friends joking around with each other at night. My informant says that she’s particularly fond of this joke, in large part due to how silly Ole’s observation is.
I agree with my informant that this joke is very funny. The sort of silly, “brain-dead” humor is emblematic of a lot of the German-Russian North Dakotan humor. While nothing in the joke itself references the specific cultural practices of German-Russians, the humor itself serves as a beacon of the folk humor popular within these North Dakotan communities.
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.
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: “…Now this one is going to sound really weird but recently there was a production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ and there was this kinda offensive song sung in it.
This sort of got turned into a backstage chant, and like I’ve also heard other people do this too. We all huddle in and whisper this ‘We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn, we’re gonna rape kill pillage and burn, eat the babies’. We say this multiple times getting louder each time until all of us are full on screaming it backstage. You know how people can like to scream vaguely offensive stuff, but its not that bad to us because we all know where it’s from. Then right before I go on stage I’ll do like a cross, you know the like Catholic one. I’m not really religious but I’ve been doing it for years. I think it started when I did a really hard solo and it had that cross in it. It basically tells me that I’ve done all I can and now I just have to perform. It’s another aspect of getting mentally ready, because so much of performing is about being physically but also mentally on your game.”
Analysis: The crossing seems to be a sort of parody of superstition. It may be an attempt to ‘use’ a previously accepted superstition in a socially accepted way or to comically parody their own use of superstition before the performance.
This backstage chant seems to be a sort of ‘trust building exercise’ that uses both humor and chanting to reinforce a sense of community. In high stress situations like ballet performances, such reinforcement likely serves to cater trust in other dancers, as the difference between an effective performance and a mishap could rely on other dancers.
Me: “Do people look for their specific lip marks when they come back?”
Informant: “Oh god no, it would be impossible to find them.”
In the informant’s ballet company, when a member was doing their last performance of a show (as in, your last ever Nutcracker performance), it was tradition to put on bright red lipstick and kiss a specific wall, leaving a mark. The mark not only signified you were a part of the show, but was symbolic of a part of you always being tied to the company. People would come back years after graduating to visit the wall they had kissed previously.
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. According to the informant, everyone kissed the wall at some point as long as they were in the company for a full run of a show. The informant wasn’t clear about exactly when you kissed the wall — it was after the show, but not necessarily directly after completion. Additionally, the go-to action didn’t used to be kissing the wall. The tradition used to be signing it, but it got too messy, so the lip marks were the evolved method.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this piece of folklore is that the tradition changed from signing the wall to kissing it, for reason of “the signing got too messy,” according to the informant. It’s perhaps telling of how significant or deeply rooted a tradition is when the reason for completely changing it is one of rather minor inconvenience.