The Comforts of Ritual

November 28, 2001

Ballet dancers train long and hard to excel at what they do.  It is imperative that they be confident in their technique when they step onto a stage, as doubt can have a crippling effect on a dancer’s ability to perform a movement that they’ve practised and rehearsed scores of times.  I’ve often had the opportunity of seeing elite dancers in class and rehearsal, and their relaxed manner and the ease with which they correctly execute all the steps shows that they know they can do this.  However, ballet dancers are also famously superstitious and wedded to rituals that they feel they must go through in order to perform well.  Where does that confidence and ease they show in class and rehearsal go then?  Shouldn’t they just be able to get out there and dazzle?


I remember being surprised when I read about Suzanne Farrell’s pre-performance rituals in her autobiography, Holding Onto the Air.  She describes crossing herself twice, pinching herself twice, and even pinning a small toy mouse she had been given inside her bra for good luck, knowing that it created a visible bump.  I thought, “OK, crossing yourself I could picture, but putting things in your bra?”  I couldn’t believe that Balanchine’s muse and a critical darling could think that she needed to go to such lengths to ensure a good performance.  But hey, it was her perogative.  We also recently featured a “Show and Tell” on ABT principal Veronika Part’s dance bag in which she describes using five rubber balls of differing sizes and resistance levels in the two-hour warmup she must do before shows.  Although she does this lengthy warmup because of an injury, the number of balls seems a bit excessive.  She insists that she needs every last one.  Still other dancers eat and drink certain things, listen to certain songs, or keep certain objects around as good-luck charms.


I really don’t think that dancers who know they can do the steps, and who are experienced performers, need to perform these rituals.  But the fact that they insist that they need to, and don’t feel totally prepared to dance unless they do, speaks volumes about the psyche of the ballet dancer.  We are all constantly striving for improvement, and have been taught never to be content with our ability level, and as a result we constantly doub ourselves.  Are we all, even the most elite, just so programmed to think this way that we believe that not hugging a teddy bear will erase our ability to do pirouettes?  Why is it so hard to say “I know I can”?



What do you need to do to get ready to dance?  Share your rituals in the comments.