Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
James Whiteside, American Ballet Theatre principal
Whiteside in Don Quixote. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT
Before stepping onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, James Whiteside needs one thing first: a huge chocolate chip cookie. "My first principal roommate was Daniil Simkin. He introduced me to the cookies at the Met Opera; they're the best," he says. "I just can't resist them. Those cookies are what I want."
Carolina Rivera, Alison Cook Beatty Dance company member
Rivera (center front) in Beatty's Magnetic Temptations. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy ACBD
At 8, Carolina Rivera was knocked unconscious while playing. When she danced in her recital, doctors insisted her mother stay in the wings. "That sort of stuck," says Rivera. As a teenager in Chile, her mother was always nearby during especially challenging performances.
Since moving to New York City, she's no longer able to have her mother physically close. So she texts her. "I say, 'I'm going in,' and that way I know she'll be thinking about me. Most times she answers with something like, 'If you want to clean floors, I will support you, but you better make those floors shine.' " It's her way of saying she'll stand behind whatever her daughter wants to do, as long as she does her best. "If I don't talk to her, I have a note on my phone. It says: 'Make the floor shine.' "
Derek Roland, Parallel Exit company member
Photo by Carsten Fleck, courtesy Roland
Known for his fleet-footed tap dancing, Derek Roland remembers feeling oddly out of place years ago when Parallel Exit, a dance comedy troupe, was performing alongside mostly modern and contemporary dance. "We stuck out like a sore thumb," he remembers. "We needed to lighten the mood for what we were going to do."
An unusual ritual was born: "We started this hip isolation battle that's pure silliness. It's similar to a challenge between tap dancers: We see who can come up with the most complex creations. We call out manipulations of our hips, so I might say 'right, left, hip drop, pop, flip to the scoop and diagonal pop.' That very first time we got to laughing so hard we had to move away from wings."
The habit helps the group release any pre-show anxiety. "When you're tap dancing with a rubber chicken, it gets you in the proper mind-set!"
Tanya Haglund, musical theater performer
Haglund warming up in the house.
While on the national tour of Chicago, Tanya Haglund started warming up in the house—and the tradition stuck. "It takes me out from behind the stage," she says. "It's rare to be on the audience side of things."
Not only does the habit help her "soak up the energy of the theater," it gives her an opportunity to get to know the front-of-house ushers and sound techs. "And seeing the stage from the audience's perspective reminds me to be grateful that I get to be on the other side."
Andrew Murdock, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago company member
Murdock in Jirí Kylián's Sarabande. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Hubbard Street.
After tech, Andrew Murdock eats, naps and takes the hottest shower he can stand. "It's like starting a new day."
More rituals include the backstage team. "I always connect with the production crew with a high five or a hello. They have our backs, and I want to let them know I have theirs too. If I don't high five my stage manager Julie Ballard right before the curtain, I feel weird."
Perhaps most important for Murdock, though, is taking time to energetically connect with his mother. "My mom passed away when I was in college," he explains. "It's not so much of a 'hello,' as it is a natural thing that happens right before I go on. For me it's about feeling supported and believed in and connecting with her through that feeling."
Tricia Albertson, Miami City Ballet principal
Albertson backstage in her power pose. Photo courtesy Miami City Ballet
Two years ago, Tricia Albertson was on a TED Talk kick. One in particular—Amy Cuddy's "Your body language may shape who you are"—changed her pre-show ritual.
"She explains how confident people tend to take up a lot of space," says Albertson. "People who are more shy cave in on themselves. A study found that by making yourself bigger for two minutes, your cortisol level drops and your testosterone rises."
Albertson decided to try it. "I'll stand with my arms spread like a star for at least 30 seconds," she says. "I imagine I'm getting bigger, taking up the space of the theater, or even beyond the theater." She'll repeat it when she gets to the wings, and sometimes again if she's exhausted between entrances in a ballet.
And it works. "My energy increases; I feel my stress level reduce," she says. "I feel smaller when I don't do it."
Juliane Godfrey, musical theater performer
Photo by Sarah Jenkins
While performing in Holiday Inn, Juliane Godfrey got in the habit of putting gaff tape on half of her taps to avoid slipping during the show's tricky tapping-while-jump-roping number. She continued that tradition with the tour of Something Rotten!
"With all the layers of corsets and skirts, if you slip in that outfit, you can't get back up!" she says. She still does it before performing today. "It's become something of a superstition for me."