Though dance is ancient: older than speech, it is a playground for both the young and elderly. Adorning cave walls ahead of words, dance is an art both decorative and communicative–a secret code between slaves, a prayer to the gods for rain, a story played out on stage.
Like any art, dance is a mirror held to the world at large, steadily evolving parallel to fashion, politics, gender roles, cultural trends and superstition. Within the twirling language of dance is a sub-language. Not the French plié or promenade, but the superstitious old slang of the theater. Passed from veteran to pupil, these words stick from the earliest of stages, spoken like a reflex.
- “Good luck!”
- “Break a leg!”
- “Toi toi tio!”
- Blue Dye
- Green Room
- Peacock Feathers
- Going Dark
- Ghost Light
Click the images to reveal the stories behind the sayings.
GOOD LUCK! — Still taboo in theater today, Wishing good luck is said to invoke the evil eye, causing the reverse. To avoid the curse, alternatives were born.
MERDE! — However figurative, you just don’t curse a dancer’s legs. For the ballet, because break a leg wouldn’t do, a different saying was coined. The literal translation of the French word merde is “sh*t”, but its usage here is more symbolic. Before motor cars, a show’s popularity could literally be measured in horse “merde.” The more horse carriages parked, the more of it found outside a theater. To this day, dancers say “merde” to wish each other a brilliant performance with a full house to witness. A darker spin on the story theorizes that dancers would caution one another to look out for “merde” on the walk to the theater, evolving into the usage of “merde” as the warning: watch your step!
BREAK A LEG! — The origins of “break a leg” are disputed. A few theorized translations: May the audience cheer until your leg breaks from bowing. (May your leg be sore tomorrow, a souvenir of the crowd’s admiration. A less friendly wish from the under studies) May you break a leg so that I might have a go. In Shakespeare’s time, break meant bend. Therefore, a bow was a break at the knee. Today, it means simply “good luck”.
TOI TOI TOI! — The good luck of Opera, “Toi Toi Toi” comes from Teufel, the German name for the devil. It is traditionally said before the overture, with a spitting motion over the shoulder, to ward off evil. ! ! Speaking of the Devil, yellow costumes are said to be bad luck, as performers once wore the color to portray him.
BLUE DYE — Blue onstage was at one time a kiss of death. Though blue dye was once quite costly, struggling companies would color their costumes with it to create the illusion of success, going bankrupt as a result.
GREEN ROOM — Even green doesn’t make the cut where luck is concerned. In outdoor performances, green wardrobe created a camouflage effect, the actor fading into the scenery. Wariness of the color green has been transplanted and maintained in indoor theaters. Ironically, the green room is a cheerful and cozy place for performers to gather before, and audiences to congratulate after a show.
UPSTAGE/DOWNSTAGE — Rather than superstition, upstage and downstage (the back and the front of the stage, respectively) come from the old architecture of theaters. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, stages were raked, tilted up in the back, providing a better view for the audience. A performer had to walk up the incline to the back, and downhill to the front. As a verb, an attention-hungry performer might upstage a castmate by moving upstage, forcing his downstage scene partner to turn their back on the audience. Today, any intentional maneuver to rob the spotlight is considered “upstaging”.
PEACOCK FEATHERS — Greek mythology tells of a monster called Argus, the servant of Hera, covered in one hundred unsleeping eyes. After Hermes slayed Argus, Hera moved the creature’s eyes onto the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock. In theater, the peacock feather is considered ill omen. Thought to represent the evil eye’ with which it shares an aesthetic likeness, a peacock feather found on-site ‘curses’ the entire production.
WHISTLING — Yet another means to summon bad luck, whistling was once an instant way to cause actual disaster.! When trading was dictated by weather patterns, sailors were hired to run the theater’s rigging system during off seasons. Their expertise with ropes and knots proved a great asset. Before walkie-talkies and headsets, the stage manager used coded whistles to cue the sailors. Out-of-place whistles backstage were known to cause all sorts of mishaps with scenery, props, and curtains on stage.
GOING DARK — The theater traditionally closes one night a week. Most theaters are “dark” on Mondays. The rule began in order to give the theater ghosts their turn to perform.
THE GHOST LIGHT — One light must be kept lit when the theater is dark, to appease the ghosts, who delight in pranking the living cast. The light began as a candle placed downstage. Today it is referred to as the Equity Lamp.
SUPERSTITION — It’s everywhere. We all remember skipping over sidewalk cracks in elementary school to save our mothers’ backs. Eventually though, as our legs and stride stretch, we become focused on avenues and boulevards; The cracks do not distract us so. Yet, when a dancer passes her growing pains, the tongue of the theater remains as imbedded as the steps she practices daily. Perhaps it’s our way of paying homage to the theater’s late occupants…a ouija board for the stage, waking thespians past. Surely, every time a ballerina says merde, a theater ghost laughs in the wings.