Theatrical Superstitions

by Henrik on April 30, 2011

A black cat crosses your path, something bad is going to happen. A broken mirror is seven years of bad luck. And don’t even mention Friday 13th… Superstition is something everyone is familiar with. Some believe in it, some disregard it as, well, superstition. Different cultures and groups has their own superstitions, and for some, it makes an important part of their religious or philosophical beliefs.

Bad luck, superstition, witchcraft

A broken mirror is seven years of bad luck, but is it true? In the end you decide for yourself.

But did you know there are a lot of superstitions in any theatre? In a line of work where you constantly have to present your best at a given time, it’s always good to have some old superstition to blame if something goes west. With the possibility of accidents and injuries hanging over an already pressed dancer, you can see why superstition has become quite common in dance communities world-wide. I’m sure you have all heard about the Phantom of the opera, the theatre ghosts and the reason why no actor will ever mention Shakespeare’s Macbeth by name. But have you heard about these dancer-supersticions?

For example, do never (and I mean never) whistle in the theatre. However catchy the music might be, or how good a mood you might be in, just don’t. Whistling inside the theatre is commonly believed to cause accidents and injuries. Apparently, this rule evoked from the rigging of the stage. As original stage crews were hired from ships in port (theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Whistling in the theatre could confuse them, possibly causing disasters.

If you happen to be back-stage or in a ballet theatre, you will see that dancers sit a lot on the floor. It’s a habit, we do sit a lot on the floor, usually with our legs sticking out in all directions, possibly blocking the opportunity to move freely around the room quite a bit. But whatever you do, do not step cross the legs of a dancer! Supersticion says the leg will break, and I think you can see why we don’t want that. If you are so silly to walk cross a dancers legs by chance, you have to immediately walk backwards crossing the legs to undo the curse.

Ways to wish “Good Luck”

And then there are the ‘good luck’. As common for both actors, singers and musicians, dancers neither are not very found of the expression ‘good luck’. It is believed to bring just the opposite. Dancers have a bunch of expression to wish each other good luck, some of which are:

  • “Toi Toi” is used frequently, meaning just ‘good luck’. Fun fact: in Africa, “toi toi” is used when a lot of people are protesting against something, as the equivalent of a demonstration.
  • “Break a leg” is a greeting quite common for luck, and however ironic, it is also frequently used by dancers.
  • “Merde” is French for shit, and is usually said before a dancer go on stage for good luck.
  • In Portuguese and Spanish-speaking countries the crew gathers and screams “Muita Merda!”, meaning “lot of shit!”. The term “A lot of shit” reputedly comes from the success of a play. Historically people would arrive by carriage – lots of people meant lots of carriages and horses, leaving “a lot of shit”.
Theatre ghost, phantom of the opera, bad focus, blurry,

Theatre Ghost or just sloppy focus? Picture borrowed from 7streettheatre.com

There are also several gestures to communicate the same message. A friendly clap on the shoulder is something anyone understands, but if someone comes up to you and kick your ass with their knees back stage, don’t worry. The person just wants to wish you luck on your premiere.

Some dancers go to more extreme measures to protect themselves from the curses of bad luck. I won’t say names, but I’ve seen dancers both kissing the floors before a performance, and (more disturbingly), their shoes. A more common tradition though is to give your fellow dancers small gifts like chocolate or other candies before any big performance – a collegial way of wishing good luck, or a secret evil plot to make them gain weight for you to get their roles?!

Finally, it’s common to think the general rehearsal decides the outcome of any bigger premiere. A terrible general equals a great performance. However, I’ve never heard anything about how it works the other way around…

Do you know of any theatrical superstitions not in here? Leave a comment, I would love to hear about them!!!

Finally, a good one for you: A company should never practice the bows before they feel they deserve them.

Until next time,
Ta-Ta
H

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Katherine Barber April 30, 2011 at 9:40 am

Hi Henrik,
Thanks for the Interesting post! In Australia they use the Australian term “chookas” to wish dancers good luck. Jury’s out on where the term comes from but dictionary editors are looking into it. One theory is that because “chook” is a slang Australian term for “chicken” ,the idea is that if a lot of people attend the performance there will be more money for everyone to buy chicken. Sounds a bit farfetched to me though. All the same, chookas for your new company!
Katherine

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 11:19 am

Hi Katherine! That’s cool, I’ve never heard of the ‘Chookas’ expression! Cool to learn something new! It does seem a little farfetched that there will be more money for the dancers to buy chicken, but after a search on Google, it is the expression that is commonly used to explain the word… Huh, interesting. If someone posts a new ‘theory’, make sure you let me know?!
And thank you for your kind wishes! :)
H

Reply

Oliver May 14, 2011 at 2:31 pm

In South Africa they call it Chukkas! pretty similar!

Reply

Henrik May 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm

cool! It also means chicken, I presume?! This comment section in definitely the most interesting of all on the whole blog!! :)

Reply

Michelle Whelan January 25, 2013 at 3:35 pm

In Oz, my 5 year old son was fascinated by a ballet performance on tv and I offered to find him a class but next day he came home from primary school announcing that “boys don’t do chook-dancing”

subsequently, in Ireland, he became quite a good breakdancer.

Now, at 27, he only dances in clubs to woo the ladies – ah well!

Reply

Joanna April 30, 2011 at 11:29 am

The aussies have “chookas” – http://www.behindballet.com/ask-colin-chookas/

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 11:21 am

That’s cool! As I replied to Katherine above, I never heard about the expression before. Thank you for the link, it was a good article!
H

Reply

Seven of Nine Davids April 30, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Very enjoyable post. Reminds me of the song, “Whistle while you work …” from Snow White and the Dwarves a Seven.

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 11:22 am

I’m glad you liked it! The old stage riggers sure did know their whistles, probably looked a little like the Dwarwes as well ;)

Reply

Jen April 30, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Loved the picture of the theatre ghost!

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 11:24 am

Me too! :)

Reply

Jeff May 1, 2011 at 12:37 am

There are tons of theatrical superstitions out there, but one that immediately comes to mind more in the world of dramatic theater is not saying “Macbeth” inside the theater, instead using a euphemism like “the Scottish play.” Another one that comes to mind is not using real flowers as props in a show. (Seems kind of practical, actually!)

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 11:33 am

Yes, the Scottish Play supersticion is maybe the most known theatrical supersticion of them all. The one real flowers are bad luck indeed for props, and so are mirrors on the stage. There are millions to choose from, but I tried to make the post centered around supersticions related to dancers. I hope you liked it.

Reply

Jeff May 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm

For sure! Thanks to you now I know about not walking over legs. I’ll try to remember! :)

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 8:27 pm

haha, do try that – it is considered very rude in some theaters ;)

Reply

Cinthia May 1, 2011 at 3:07 am

I’m a brazillian ballerina and I just have to say how much we love to scream out loud: MEEEEEEERDA! hahaha It’s also a great way to let out all the pre-preformance stress.
And we have an add to that superstition that says you should never thank someone when they wishe you “Merda”, you must reply with another “Merda”, cause apparently you’re not supposed to thank “shit”! hahaha

Beijos from Brazil!

Reply

Henrik May 1, 2011 at 11:35 am

It kind of makes sense that you don’t thank anyone for wishing you shit, doesn’t it? :) I hope you do all your screaming before they actually let people into the auditorium – even if there is a curtain between you, they still can hear you :)
H

Reply

Ingrid Lamark May 3, 2011 at 8:17 pm

I had a theatre teacher once that always, always, whenever he was entering a stage or performance room, took a deep breath and then showed his middle finger on the right hand quite literally TO the stage. Like a, “f*** you, I’ll dammn well just do this!”. Apparently something he learned once to be more confident on stage, and it stuck as a habit. It’s actually quite useful, to build up that aggression. And by the way, mentioning The Scottish Play by it’s real name by accident IN The Globe in London almost had me thrown out from there. Ouch. So don’t. Just, don’t.

Reply

Henrik May 3, 2011 at 9:16 pm

haha, you mentioned it IN the Globe? I’d throw you out as well :)
About showing the finger to the audience, that’s a new one.. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you ;) On the other hand (no pun intended), I do understand the use of a little kick before going onstage.

Reply

A Bergstedt May 4, 2011 at 4:03 am

Awesome! Soooo glad I found this blog. Thanks for posting it!

Reply

Henrik May 4, 2011 at 8:19 am

glad you like it! :) Have a look around the ‘columns’ section in the navigation bar up top – you can find any post on Tights and Tiaras from there. H

Reply

Susan Attfield May 6, 2011 at 9:18 am

Thanks!

I think in South Africa we would say “sterkte” meaning “strength” before going on stage.

Reply

Henrik May 6, 2011 at 8:00 pm

huh, Haven’t heard that before-cool! This comment section is turning into a wiki of good-lucks! :) I like it!

Reply

Judy July 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Yes, Susan, the white Afrikaans speaking person would say “Sterkte”. We Engkish speaking people sometimes translate it as “strongs”, but in my semi-professional experience Chukkas is the word often written in cards that are given with chocolates, sweets or flowers. I actually found this sight hoping to find the origin of Chukkas. so THANK YOU Henrik! Fun reading :)

Reply

Henrik August 20, 2012 at 10:37 am

So good to see you guys take this post further. Thank you all for sharing your experience and knowledge! :)

Reply

Catherine May 12, 2011 at 6:56 am

I love this thread! Such fun to see all the other people chime in too H! :) Big points for creativity!

Reply

Henrik May 12, 2011 at 8:50 am

I know, it’s awesome! Lots of these expressions, I’ve never heard before – one of the coolest comments-section on Tights and Tiaras so far! People, Keep chiming in with your thoughts and experiences, we LOVE it! :)

Reply

Alexandra Vásquez May 12, 2011 at 8:59 am

When I was a kid, everyone just said good luck to each other. When we were around 13 or 14, we started saying “break a leg” because we wanted to sound cool and professional. However, ever since I “broke” my leg on stage, I cut off anyone who tries to say that.
Since I joined a more “artsy” studio and started attending more under-the-radar shows (I used to dance in a more competition-based studio), I began to hear “mucha mierda” wished, and even “MIERDA” screamed right before the shows. I thought it was very rude and didn’t understand when people started saying it to me! When I read this I felt like part of a more global community yelling SHIT to each other :D (btw, I’m from EL SALVADOR :D !!)

Reply

Henrik May 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Haha, there are a lot of shit involved in wishing luck. Also in Hungary, the fellow dancers will often wish you a “hat full of shit” for your performance, without me knowing why exactly a hat.. I’ll have to find that out .
Thank you for sharing your experiences! I’m not a fan of “break a leg” either – without ever having broken one, but still.. You don’t wish an opera singer to “loose your voice” before she goes on, either ;)
H

Reply

Dacey June 27, 2011 at 11:24 pm

I have heard all of these expressions and superstitions except the ones involving shit. Who new something so crass could be so inspirational? Too funny!

Reply

Henrik June 28, 2011 at 7:31 pm

haha, true! Lot of funny stories behind, too! Glad you liked the post!

Reply

Eirin Adriane August 2, 2011 at 10:48 pm

My dramateacher told me that IF someone wishes you good luck before a performance, don’t EVER say thank you! Just pretend you never heard it, or be even ruder: smile and walk away :p
The general rehersal thing has actually come true for me on several occasions. When my class where doing a play called Tartuffe (some 17 century french stuff), we did shit on the general rehersal. We didn’t know or lines, forgot stuff we were supposed to bring on stage and so on. Twelve hours later, when we had the premiere, we where pretty good.

Btw, it’s nice to see that there is actually a professional male balletdancer from Norway. Well, for all I know there may be a lot of them, but I’ve never seen or heard of one. But then, I’m from nordland ;D

Reply

Henrik August 7, 2011 at 9:16 am

Hi Eirin, and thank you for leaving your comment!

The thing about superstitions are, in the end, they are just that: Superstitions. Some people take them very seriously, me, I don’t really care too much, but I find it interesting where they are from and why they developed the way they did. But if someone tells me good luck, I truly believe it’s because they mean well, and just didn’t know the in-house rule of the theatre, and I appreciate if someone wants me well.

There are some male balletdancers from Norway, but true, we are not a huge group. And Nordland is the best place in the world :)
Just for Eirin: Æ kommer fra Bodø, gøy å ha en med-nordlandsk kommentator ;)
H

Reply

Eirin Adriane August 7, 2011 at 10:06 am

Eg såg etterpå eg skreiv kommentarn at du va fra Bodø :D Eg e i fra Mo sjøl. Det e veldi interessant å les om kordan det e å vær profesjonell ballettdanser. Det e ei sia vi ikke får hør så mye ;)

Reply

John Madill October 30, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Some of this may have more specific references. for example:
‘…A friendly clap on the shoulder is something anyone understands, but if someone comes up to you and kick your ass with their knees back stage, don’t worry. The person just wants to wish you luck on your premiere.’ This sounds like a reference to the Victorian eccentric sad clown, Dan Leno (1860-1904), at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. In his case it might have been accompanied by a whiff of lavender, as he used that perfume to cover an incontinency problem. check him out on Wiki and a YouTube theatrical haunting clip. The kick could also mean ‘smarten up!’ for an inattentive performer.

Reply

Henrik October 31, 2011 at 9:54 am

cool, I had never heard of him. I will indeed check it out, thanks for adding to the “list” :) H

Reply

Teri Z October 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I do not remember why, but peacock feathers are bad luck. Once, my daughter had some in her hair when she was going to watch her brother dance, and the ballet mistress had her take it off because it was bad luck.

Reply

Phil May 2, 2012 at 2:46 am

Hi
As I understand it the phrase break a leg has nothing to do with actually breaking one of your legs. It is to do with bowing and encores. One thought is that the mechanism for raising and lowering the curtains was called a leg and that the phrase was to wish the actor so many curtain calls that the leg broke. Another is to do with bowing in that with one foot behind the other you would have to bend your knees and so break the staightness of your leg.

Reply

Henrik May 7, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Hi Phil,

Yes, that makes sense :) Thanks for “clearing that up” – I looked for an explanation for that one, but didn’t find it :)

Reply

Sophie September 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm

In my dance company. (I’m a student there) we always kiss the wall in our lipstick right before a performance. I’ve never heard or it being done anywhere else so it might be unique to our theatre since we are based solely in one theatre. I managed to convince my classmates to do it when we were doing a play there and it went off without a hitch. (I wasn’t with the dance company but my normal school.) Also while doing that one of ours (the lovely cow of the play ‘Milky White’) made us touch a necklace since it’s a good luck charm.

Reply

ian February 1, 2013 at 11:21 pm

I know you say Toi Toi Toi to opera /classical singers to wish them luck, but what is the correct expression to a singer in (say ) a West End (London) or Broadway show?

Reply

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: