Ballet ghosts, theatre cats and flowers stolen from graveyards – happy Friday the 13th!
If you’ve ever worked in a theatre, you’d know that you don’t ever speak the word “Macbeth” to an actor. The Macbeth curse has become a legendary superstition, with creepy stories of accidents and bad luck.
The dance world has its own scary myths. Take the Palace Theatre in London, which is said to be haunted by the ghosts of two ballerinas. The Palace, which opened in 1891, is a favourite among followers of the paranormal, some of whom fervently believe that Anna Pavlova is one the ghostly figures who haunts it. A ballerina resembling her is said to appear frequently on the theatre’s stage. It seems fitting: Pavlova was extremely superstitious. She refused to look at images of herself on posters and stubbornly insisted on using separate entrances into theatres to dodge the bad luck that may have been waiting for her.
But even Pavlova is upstaged by the Palace Theatre’s other ballerina ghost, who is a far more tragic figure: an unknown young dancer who committed suicide and was found hanged by the back stairs. Her ghost is said to visit the theatre like a lost spirit who can’t find her way home.
If you think two regular ghosts are quite enough for one theatre, you’re wrong. The Palace seems to be a hub of supernatural activity. The scariest of all are former managers of the theatre who are said to watch over rehearsals. There are witnesses who swear that one particularly aggressive manager’s ghost takes the direct route with his haunting. There are staff who testify to feeling his hands on their shoulders; one woman had her headphones ripped from her head by a ghostly hand during rehearsals. Such is the paranormal traffic in the Palace that two seats in its balcony are permanently bolted open to so the resident ghosts can sit there.
Apparitions, lost souls and hauntings are regular features of dance and theatre myths, so much so that one of the oldest superstitious traditions is that of the Ghost Light. It’s considered bad luck to leave a theatre completely dark, so a Ghost Light is left on at all times on many theatre stages. Some say that every theatre has its own ghost and if a light is not left on on the stage the ghosts of former performers decide to take up residence there, disturbing the living performers. Others say that Ghost Lights are simply a way to appease restless or angry ghosts who want to perform on stage when nobody is around. This stops them from sabotaging shows during the day, or placing curses on certain ballets or plays. The tradition of closing the theatre doors to the public for one day of the week is done on the same principle: on this “day off”, ghosts are given time to frolic on stage.
If however, you fear more than just ghosts, then listen up: gathered here some of the most interesting and popular dance and theatre superstitions.
Cats, candles and bad colours
Cats were regarded as godly creatures by the ancient Egyptians – and bad luck omens or familiars of witches during the middle ages. Many theatres have resident cats, and they are often regarded as good luck. However, many believe that if a cat were to walk across the stage during a performance, it was a bad omen presaging a disastrous show.
One of the things you should never ever do is light three candles together anywhere inside a theatre. This superstition relates to the end of a performer’s career, because the person who stands closest to the shortest candle will either get married or die. In the past, particularly for female performers, marriage and death often had the same result: career over.
Wearing yellow inside a theatre is tempting fate. Yellow was often regarded as the colour of the devil, bringing bad luck to the dancers and actors on stage. Blue was also considered an unlucky colour because it was associated with the demise of companies. Traditionally blue dye was hard to come by and therefore expensive. Companies that were failing would wear blue garments to try and fool their audience that they were successful, but in many cases the cost just hastened their bankruptcy.
Makeup, mirrors and jewellery
Since the world of theatre is a make-believe one, it’s considered bad luck to use “real” things on stage – for instance, mirrors and jewellery. This makes a certain amount of sense (real mirrors could be dangerous, real jewels invite thieves), but some superstitions make less sense, such as the ritual of dancing on make-up powder if you happen to drop it on the floor backstage. Dance is, apparently, a way of bringing good luck to something fallen.
Happy accidents and backstage behaviour
If you really want to wish a ballerina good luck, then tell her you hope she trips on the hem of her dress backstage. This superstition originated in old English theatres and carries remnants of old fairy folklore. The story goes that fairies cause humans to trip as a game, and if a female performer trips over her dress, she should immediately kiss it in order to make the fairies happy. As in fairy tales, the kiss results in good fortune.
There are plenty of “don’ts” for every “do” backstage though. A list of things that are said to bring terrible luck include: whistling backstage, peeking from the wrong side of the curtain, performing in a perfect rehearsal, and, believe it or not, knitting backstage. The worst crime is of course wishing a dancer “good luck”. You should say exactly the opposite, so as not to tempt fate. Historically, performers used to undertake a ritual whenever that terrible phrase was uttered in their presence. You had to step outside the theatre, turn around on the spot three times, spit and curse, then knock on the door and ask to come back inside. You’ll often hear dancers wishing each other good luck with the phrase “break a leg” or “merde”, or in Australia, the mysterious “chookas“.
The superstitious etiquette of flowers
If you want to give a dancer some flowers, then do so after the show. It’s considered bad luck to present dancers with flowers before they go on stage. Creepily, however, in days gone by it was extremely good luck to give dancers and performers – especially the leading lady – flowers stolen from graveyards.