With Halloween approaching, we always love to revisit our post about superstition and the dancer. This post was originally post 7 years ago. Enjoy!!!
Dancers and their theatrical peers are masters of the art of fantasy and characterization. In order to be successful at their craft, a dancer must create a believable character that leaves their audiences spell-bound. It is within the confines of the theater that both performer and viewer silently agree to believe the unbelievable. “Without these unspoken agreements, there could be no theater; with these agreements, all theaters become magic places where time shifts and identity is transformed.” (Haunted Theaters by Barbara Smith. 2002)
This “unspoken agreement” helped propagate the rich history of superstition and rituals among performers throughout the ages.
Haunting & Superstition
Superstitious beliefs attached to the theater originated in the continental cities of Europe where the ballet predominated. Even in these modern times, theaters tend to have a plethora of associated superstitions and ghost stories. Here are a few:
The Ghost Light
According to tradition, one should always leave a light on in an empty theater. This light either wards off ghosts—or may just provide the ghosts enough light to see. Failure to provide this may anger the ghosts leading to pranks and other mishaps.
It is considered bad luck if a rehearsal goes smoothly. The feared results of a perfect rehearsal include a very short performance run, or the performance itself will be disastrous. It is also unlucky to speak the last line of a play before Opening Night.
It is forbidden to whistle anywhere inside the theater, especially in or near the dressing rooms. The superstition states that if a whistle is heard, someone (although not necessarily the whistler) will soon lose their job.
Wishing an Actor or Dancer “Good Luck”
This is by far one of the most well-known superstitions. Wishing an actor or dancer “good luck” before a performance is considered extremely unlucky and is sure to bring disaster. Instead, one should wish an actor to “break a leg”, which is symbolic of “taking a bow” at the end of a worthy performance, and wish a dancer “merde”.
Merde is actually French slang for “dung” but has an interesting history in regard to the dance world. Before the invention of cars, Parisian streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages and plenty of horse dung. As dancers made their way to the theater, they would caution one another to “not step in the merde”. During the evenings when the people—and their horses--were in vast attendance, all the “merde” outside was considered a good thing. Dancers soon began to wish one another “merde” before going on stage as a way of saying “watch your step”.
The Scottish Play
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is said to be the most cursed of all plays; therefore actors avoid saying its name. Euphemisms such as “The Scottish Play” or “The Bards’ Play” are used instead. The superstition states that terrible luck will befall on any company performing the play, ranging from strange accidents to actual death. In many parts of the world, even speaking the name “Macbeth” anywhere inside the theater or quoting from its text will cause that person to lose all of their theatrical friends.
Closed for Ghosts
According to superstition, the theater should always be closed one night a week in order to give the ghosts a chance to perform themselves. Monday night is usually preferred, as it also provides actors with a day off following weekend performances.
The World’s Most Haunted Theaters
Many of the world’s oldest and most renowned theaters are said to be haunted. Ghostly encounters range from the mischievous to the deadly, and plague performers, stage-hands and ushers alike. Instead of frightening theater patrons away, these tales seem to have the opposite effect by adding to the theater’s allure and mystique.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
London’s oldest working theater is said to be home to several spirits. Perhaps the most famous is “The Man in Grey”, who appears as a nobleman dressed in a grey cloak, powdered wig, and 3-cornered hat. According to legend, “The Man in Grey” appears just prior to a successful run, and he’s said to enjoy poking and kicking the actors. The ghost of actor Joe Grimaldi is a welcome sight by nervous thespians. Reports of his helpful guidance have surfaced on several occasions.
The Orpheum Theatre, Memphis Tennessee
Within the confines of the “south’s finest theater” lives the ghost of a young girl named Mary. Although no one knows exactly how she came to the Orpheum, the most accepted theories suggest she was either run over by a horse-drawn carriage or an automobile in front of the theater, or she fell to her death from a balcony while watching a performance. “Mary” tends to enjoy the view from seat C-5 and those who sit there claim to feel cold chills. Others have reportedly heard a child giggling and running through the halls, doors opening and closing on their own, and the pipe organ playing by itself. Still other accounts insist that Mary is responsible for turning all the chairs in her box backwards during performances she doesn’t like.
The Paramount Theater, Seattle Washington
According to local legend, this Seattle-based icon is primarily haunted by the ghost of a beautiful, red-haired woman. We first heard of this story on Halloween day a few years ago, when we used the Paramount for a company photo shoot. Built in 1928, the Paramount is one of Seattle’s oldest theaters, with more than one ghost reportedly seen by its former employees. However, having a personal encounter with one of these apparitions seems to be getting harder to come by. According to sources, this is due to all the rock concerts held at the theater, and only a select few of its eerie patrons still enjoy them. (Ghost Stories from the Pacific Northwest, by Margaret Read MacDonald.1996 )
Superstition in the World of Dance
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the fact remains that many dancers hold fast to their own unique rituals and good luck charms.
For example, Vanessa Zahorian a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet says a prayer and kisses the ground before going onstage. She also wears a diamond pinkie ring which her parents gave her as a child during every performance, kept hidden from view courtesy of tape.
Some dancers such as Jon Leher, director of contemporary dance company LeherDance in Buffalo, New York, believe luck comes from a little extra sweat. Literally. “I try to wash (my warm-up clothes) as little as possible,” he says.
Other pre-performance rituals include everything from forming a circle and linking pinkies with corps members, applying perfume, to warming up or doing one’s hair and make-up in a precise order.
However you slice it, superstitions and rituals are just as much a part of the dance world as company class and daily stretching. So whether you exit your dressing room left-foot-first, whisper a prayer, or simply say “break a leg” to your peers, every performer has their own way of avoiding the personal--and paranormal—pitfalls of the theater.
All photographs © Angela Sterling