How to Wish Baryshnikov Luck the Next Time You Run Into Him

Theater folks are incredibly superstitious, and dancers are the most superstitions of them all. One of the the staunches superstitions among dancers is that they are never to be wished good luck before a performance with the phrase break a leg. Instead, a rather strange custom has arisen.

Baryshnikov, 1975, Credit: flickr

You are relaxing after work one day when your roommate, a former ballet dancer, comes rushing in extremely excited.

“Misha’s dancing!” she announces, which is all you can get out of her for the next 20 minutes.

She finally calms down enough to tell you that Mikhail Baryshnikov has announced he will be dancing in a special, one night only, performance with a several of his former dancers. As she knows one of these dancers, she has managed to get tickets. You hold your breath until hearing what you had hoped so desperately for. She’s managed to wrangle an extra ticket for you. The two of you hold onto each other and jump around in a circle squealing for several minutes, then run in an out of each others’ bedrooms mixing and matching clothes trying to come up with the perfect outfit for the evening.

The big night finally comes, and you follow your roommate backstage, so she can wish her friend luck. Even though there’s two hours til curtain, it’s chaos. It seems that you’ve wandered into a another world entirely, one which you have no familiarity with. You stand against a wall trying to keep out of everyone’s way.

Of course, it never crosses your mind that you’ll actually see Baryshnikov himself, figuring that he’ll obviously be off in his star dressing room somewhere isolated from the rest of the dancers. You decide to wait out front and go to find your roommate to tell her. You turn a corner and, Wham! You find yourself staring into the most gorgeous pair of blue eyes you have ever seen. You’re mind catches up and informs you that yes, you are in fact standing there, face to face with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

You apologize for being in his way, explaining in rapid fire English with far too many words about your roommate and why you’ve been loitering around his backstage. He gives a little shrug as if to say it’s no problem. You think to wish him good luck, realizing since you’re in the theater that should be break a leg.

But as you open your mouth, it hits you. You can’t tell Baryshnikov to break a leg! That would be ridiculous, possibly bordering on illegal! You start, stop and stumble over your words, feeling the blood creep up your neck and into your face.

Why didn’t you think to ask your friend just how you should wish a dancer good luck? Because it hadn’t crossed your mind until that moment that the standard custom you’re aware of is not appropriate for dancers at all.

Just as you’re about to burst into tears at the lost, once in a lifetime chance to calmly wish Baryshnikov well in his upcoming performance, he gives a boyish grin and says, “ — -”.

Say what?

Seeing your confusion, his smile deepens and he says it again. Yep, that’s what you thought he said, and this time you repeat it back to him. I mean it’s gotta be okay, if he said it first,right? He gives a slight nod, another smile and a simple, Thank you, and then he’s gone.

Right around then your friend finds you and you realize what you’ve just done.


How she follows your panicked run-on you’ll never know, but she definitely got the beginning and the end because she is clearly horrified and all but screams, “You swore at Baryshnikov?” Now you both are about ready to cry and the story pours out of you. At one point your friend seems to calm down and she looks confused. “Wait. That’s it? That’s the big obscenity?”

“Yes.” You have yet to realize that she no longer seems upset. “I didn’t know what to say, so he told me what to say, but I screwed it up and said that instead!”

And if you aren’t mortified enough, your roommate starts to laugh. When she finally catches her breath she says, “But that’s what you’re supposed to say!”

Over the next few minutes, your incredulity grows as you come to understand the strange custom of wishing a dancer a good performance by saying Merde, the French word for s**t.

Theater Folks Are a Superstitious Lot

The general custom among theater folks is that you never wish them good luck since they have a superstition that this would bring about the opposite. Most people are probably aware that the custom instead is to say break a leg.

There is some disagreement over how this came about with many saying it is derived from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Popular legend holds that after John Wilkes Booth, formerly an actor, murdered the President, he leapt to the stage in an effort to flee but broke his leg, undeniably a bit of bad luck, at least for him. So by wishing an actor what is the equivalent of bad luck, this is believed to bring good luck.

For obvious reasons, however, it would be considered the height of bad form to say break a leg to a dancer. Instead, you say, “Merde,” often with kisses on each cheek. It is quite a sight to see a number of people wishing a dance group a good performance with this word uttered over and over amidst cheek kisses as if it were the most innocuous word imaginable.

Seriously? Of All the Things You Could Say, That’s the Best Anyone Could Come Up With?

While it may seem to be a bizarre custom, it becomes a little more understandable when you discover the origins of the practice. One explanation is that in the early days of ballet, which began in France, companies used live animals on stage. Every time an animal relieved themselves, someone from the audience would yell,”Merde!” to warn the dancers.

While this reason has been passed around, it is not the most plausible one and I cannot think of a single classical ballet that might have called for live animals onstage. Even if it wasn’t a ridiculous idea, there is the practical matter of dancers possibly slipping in the animal droppings and injuring themselves, a risk that would never have been allowed.

The more accepted explanation for this practice had more to do with animals outside the theater. In the early days of ballet in Paris, the more popular the performance the more people would come. This meant a thoroughfare crowded with horse drawn carriages. So one measure of the success of a performance was how much, well, merde, there was in the streets. Since more merde meant more people this was equated with success. Wishing a dancer Merde, therefore, is the equivalent of saying you hope that their performance meets with great success.

So the next time you’re backstage and run into Baryshnikov, smile sweetly, and say, “Merde” with confidence, as if you’ve been doing it your whole life. Who knows? If you’re very lucky, you might even get a double cheek kiss in response.