Health & Body

Superstitious?

Backstage rituals might ease some dancers’ butterflies, but they shouldn’t run the show

"At BODYTRAFFIC, we simply cannot go on without a group circle!" - Tina Finkelman Berkett. Photo Courtney Paige, courtesy BODYTRAFFIC.

In the moments before the curtain rises, you can usually find Hope Boykin in an empty quick-change booth. Before going onstage, the longtime Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member always takes a few moments to pray. It’s a ritual she follows regardless of the venue, the piece or who’s in the audience.

Rituals play a major role in many dancers’ pre-show routines. Even if they don’t consider themselves superstitious in the black-cat/number-13 sense, many dancers develop their own traditions, whether they swear by tying their left pointe shoe first or wishing a fellow dancer “merde.” By providing the illusion of control, these habits can help channel nervous energy into onstage magic. Researchers have even found a correlation between superstitions and improved performance. But rituals can backfire if dancers overly rely on them, believing they hold the power to make or break a show.

How Do Superstitions Work?

The power of the ritual lies in the mind of the believer. A 2010 article published in Psychological Science reported that superstitions associated with good luck, like crossed fingers and lucky charms, can be correlated with improved performance, due to increased confidence. Researchers found that simply believing in the power of their chosen rite significantly boosted participants’ perceived confidence in their own abilities.

Even beyond the dance world, the consistency of rituals provides a sense of comfort. “People say, ‘I can’t function until I have toast and coffee.’ That’s ritualistic,” points out Boykin. “It doesn’t mean it’s an obsession; it just makes it something that you’ve found that works for you.” Familiar habits lessen anxiety by reminding the brain, I’ve been here before. The less mental energy you expend worrying about a performance, the more you have to devote to the performance itself.

Dr. Nadine Kaslow, who serves as Atlanta Ballet’s resident psychologist, adds that communal pre-performance rituals such as forming a circle with fellow dancers can serve a “soothing and calming and connecting” purpose.

When The Belief Backfires

Before a performance, dancers need to remain open to the unexpected. If executing exactly seven sun salutations takes priority over embracing last-minute changes, then it’s time to reevaluate how much mental weight you’re giving your superstition. “If rituals keep a dancer from getting to work, then they can be really problematic,” says Kaslow.

For Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Steven Loch, ensuring as few repetitious rituals as possible is essential to his onstage success. At various points in his life, Loch has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In order to minimize any negative effects on his dancing, he now strives for a “low-maintenance” backstage routine, calmly applying his makeup and warming up his body. “I try to keep it open. That’s the best way for me to stay calm—just to go into my little space and not be bothered,” he explains. “If something is thrown off by the superstition or something goes wrong with it, I don’t want to have to be worrying about that for my performance.”

If your ritual is adding to, rather than alleviating, your pre-performance anxiety, Loch recommends letting it go little by little. “If you have two or three superstitions, start by not doing one of them,” he says. Take it out of your backstage prep until you feel comfortable performing without it, then take out the next. “Slowly build to the point where you don’t have any superstitions, and you’re in a place where you’re more in control.”

Find Your Own

Toeing the line between your urge to control the uncontrollable and simply being mindful in those final moments backstage—butterflies and all—is key. One way to achieve this happy medium, according to Kaslow, is to ask yourself what function your ritual serves: Does it mentally center or physically energize you? Allow you some much-needed alone time to quiet anxious thoughts? Honestly answering this question will allow you to pinpoint your personal pre-performance needs and brainstorm effective alternatives if your ritual is getting in the way of your best performance.

If you have a superstition that helps you, hold on to it. Of course, fellow dancers might find it foolish. But rather than second-guessing yourself, keep in mind that what works for you will not necessarily make sense to a fellow dancer with his or her own pre-performance needs—depending on past experiences and cultural or religious beliefs, rituals will hold different meanings for each dancer. When every performance must be danced as if for the first time, and countless hours of rehearsal amount to mere minutes in which to inspire an audience, who wouldn’t want to harness every strategy to gain self-assurance? 

What's Your Superstition?

"I roll out on my favorite softball and lip sync to Whitney Houston with my eyes closed—I have an entire Whitney playlist in a very specific order." — Elisa Monte Dance's Thomas Varvaro

"I have to be the last person to leave the dressing room, even if I'm already ready." — Camille A. Brown & Dancers' Yusha-Marie Sorzano

"I always leave an emergency pair of shoes on the side of the stage next to the rosin box. Sometimes one pair on both sides." — Atlanta Ballet's Tara Lee

"When I danced for Lar Lubovitch, he insisted on no whistling backstage! He said it would awaken the spirits sleeping." — Ballet BC's Brett Perry

The Conversation
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave

A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.

I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.

There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.

While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Getty Images

Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.

"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.

The key is choosing your loaf wisely.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending

It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.

We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Unity Phelan in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy FRANK PR

"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.

News
Walsh's Moon Fate Sin at Danspace Project. Like Fame Notions, the title was derived from Yvonne Rainer's "No" manifesto. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Via YouTube

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

Keep reading... Show less
Style & Beauty

Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.

But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Stock Snap

I injured my foot in class after 10 relaxing days on the beach. I thought vacations were the way to deal with burnout. What am I missing?

—Confused, New York, NY

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Not an outsider? No worries. Train yourself to see and think like one. Let go of preconceived notions and old habits of mind. Let dance take you by surprise! Photo by Getty Images

When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.

As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox