Trending

Why Do Dancers Say "Merde"?

Like many dance traditions, it started at the Paris Opéra. Edgar Degas' "The Dance Class."

The dance world is brimming with superstitions. One of the most common is never to say "good luck" before a show, since everyone knows uttering the phrase is, in fact, very bad luck. Actors say "break a leg" instead. But since that phrase isn't exactly dance-friendly, you and your dance friends probably tell each other "merde" before taking the stage.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "merde" is a French exclamation that loosely translates to, er, "poop." So how did dancers end up saying "merde" to each other instead of "good luck"?

To learn more, we spoke to Raymond Lukens, associate emeritus of the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum, and Kelli Rhodes-Stevens, professor of dance at Oklahoma City University. Read on—and the next time you exchange "merdes" with your castmates before a show, you'll know why.


The Origins of "Merde"

The history of "merde" begins in 19th-century Paris, when patrons of the Paris Opéra Ballet would arrive at the Palais Garnier in horse-drawn carriages. If there was a full house, there was sure to be a lot of horse manure in front of the theater. Saying "merde" became a way to tell your fellow dancers to have a good show for the packed audience. According to Rhodes-Stevens, "When dancers say 'merde' to one another, they are wishing each other a full and approving audience."

The Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opéra Ballet, where horse-drawn carriages brought patrons in the 1800s


The practice eventually spread worldwide. Today, the pervasive nature of "merde" is undeniable. Lukens, who performed internationally throughout his ballet career, remembered using "merde" in the U.S., France, and Belgium. (By the way, Lukens says the proper response to "merde" is "oui"—never "thank you," which reverses all the good luck.)

"Toi Toi Toi," "In Bocca al Lupo," and "Chookas"

In Germany, however, Lukens remembers that "toi toi toi" was customary, while in Italy, they said "in bocca al lupo.""Toi toi toi" is a phrase of German and Yiddish origin, meant to emulate spitting in order to ward off evil spirits. Opera singers adopted this tradition before shows, and it eventually bled into ballet culture. "It is like spitting, usually behind the ear of the colleague to whom you are giving good wishes," says Lukens.

The Italian phrase "in bocca al lupo' means "in the wolf's mouth," and the recipient is supposed to answer "crepi il lupo," which means, "may the wolf die." Originating in Italian theater and opera, this is another example, like "merde" and "break a leg," of wishing an unpleasant situation upon a performer so as to not jinx a good show.

In Australia, performers tell each other "chookas." The word's origin is hazy, but it's probably a variant on "chook," or chicken. Chicken used to be considered an expensive meal, and the idea was to wish for a good show so that the artists would be paid (and then eat) well.

The Future of Merde

These days, a lot of the dance world exists in outside of ballet and opera, and these scenes have developed their own superstitious sayings. Tappers sometimes say "leave it on the floor" or "lay it on the floor." Commercial and competition dancers might go for "get it," "werk," or simply "don't suck." Are these sayings the future of "merde"?

Maybe. One thing's for sure: Dancer superstitions aren't going away anytime soon. "I believe being superstitious is part of human nature to justify what cannot be explained," Lukens says. Plus, superstitions can actually give performers a confidence boost. "The ritualization of these phrases and other accompanying superstitious activities provides the opportunity for performers to give themselves a sense of control over both the unpredictability of live theater and the inability to regulate the reaction of the live audience," says Rhodes-Stevens.

The ABT Studio Company doing a pre-show ritual backstage. Kyle Froman.

So, whether you say "merde" or "chookas" before a big show, these rituals bring us together as dancers. When we use these phrases, we're not only connecting with our current group, but also continuing the legacy of the generations of dancers who came before us. And that means a lot more than just a French word for poop.

News
Boston Ballet's Kathleen Breen Combes, María Álvarez and Dawn Atkins. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've rounded up some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Alexandra MacDonald (front row, third from left) didn't win a medal at the Genée International Ballet Competition, but says she came home inspired and newly motivated by the people she met there. Photo Courtesy Genée IBC.

Ballet competitions are an exciting part of any dancer's career. Yet while scholarships, prize money, job offers and the prestige that comes with winning a medal are compelling incentives to participate in one, they're not the only benefits. In fact, many dancers who go home empty-handed still look fondly on the experience and go on to become successful professionals.

This week, the 2019 Genée International Ballet Competition kicks off in Toronto. From August 20-29, over 50 dancers, ages 15–19 and trained in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, will perform three solos in the hopes of winning a medal and a $10,000 cash prize. Many past medalists have gone on to illustrious careers—but so have those who didn't win anything. We spoke with three Genée alumni now dancing professionally who know what it's like not to place. Read on to find out why they deem their comp experiences a success, and how you can make the most of yours—whether you win or not.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Skylar Brandt and Josephine Lee. Screenshot Courtesy Lee.

Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based ThePointeShop chats with American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt to hear about how she prepares her pointe shoes. We think Brandt might win an award for how long she makes her shoes last; watch the below video for the staggering number of days (or weeks!), and to hear about all of her unique customizations and pro tips.

Courtesy Chiara Valle

Chiara Valle is just one of many dancers heading back to the studio this fall as companies ramp up for the season. But her journey back has been far more difficult than most.

Valle has been a trainee at The Washington Ballet since 2016, starting at the same time as artistic director Julie Kent. But only a few months into her first season there, she started experiencing excruciating pain high up in her femur. "It felt like someone was stabbing me 24/7," she says. Sometimes at night, the pain got so bad that her roommates would bring her dinner to the bathtub.

Keep reading... Show less