The pink and white stuffed animal that ballerina Devon Teuscher has had since she was a baby always has a place in her dressing room, no matter where she's dancing.
The worn little bunny no longer presides over Teuscher's makeup table, however. Lately, the principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre has been OK with keeping it packed inside her theater case with her leotards and shoes.
"I'm getting better," Teuscher says, laughing about the difficulty of completely letting go of this long-held good-luck superstition. And it's not her only one.
Before her entrance on stage, Teuscher bangs her brand-new pointe shoes against the wall. She won't know how many times she'll have to bang them until she hears them soften up. But one thing is certain: Teuscher will pound the shoes an even number of times, the same number for each shoe.
Just as tennis ace Rafael Nadal has his strict water-bottle setup and other rituals, and Serena Williams always brings her shower sandals to the court, and Shaquille O'Neal would chew four pieces of gum before each basketball game and stick the wad under the bench — dancers, too, are steeped in superstitions about the mystery of success. Their beliefs, however mystical, help exert a little control over the uncontrollable.
Of course, dancers aren't the only performing artists with quirky beliefs. Actors brought "break a leg" into popular parlance as a good-luck wish, to name just one example. Its disputed origins may include a kind of counter-curse or a blessing for high energy.
But ballet dancers are especially prone to using rituals and habits of the mind and spirit in trying to ensure success. From their first days as young students, they're immersed in strict, quasi-religious traditions.
Their art is all about ritual: which part of the body gets warmed up first in ballet class, whether the dancer is 6 or 36, and what gestures of arm and leg come next, drawing on centuries-old customs. For the span of their lives as dancers, daily class means that everyone is executing the same moves at the same time, breathing together in a rhythmic, communal experience that is spiritual as much as physical.
Rituals go well beyond the classroom. In Paris, Pittsburgh or St. Petersburg, every hour of a professional ballet dancer's day is ordered much the same way, from morning class to afternoon rehearsal to evening performance. The dancer's life revolves around sequence and order.
So is it any surprise that recently, just before the National Ballet of Canada's Rebekah Rimsay left her dressing room at the Kennedy Center to charge onstage as the villain Carabosse in "The Sleeping Beauty," she followed her own strict rule and took careful stock of what she calls her "old friends"?
Hairbrush, tackle box, tiny toy car: Rimsay made sure they were all in their spots on her table. The childhood brush she's used throughout her 30-year career; the decades-old tackle box that holds her makeup, with every lipstick and eyeliner carefully sorted; and the wee plastic car she found in a candy Kinder Egg maybe 25 years ago — organizing these sentimental treasures is just the finishing touch to an hours-long pre-show routine.
Rimsay also slips off her wedding and engagement rings, loops them onto a strip of elastic and ties it around her waist. She tucks the rings into her tights.
"If I didn't have them," Rimsay says of all her keepsakes, "what would that do to me?"
ABT soloist Zhong-Jing Fang always takes a shower before a show "to clean my mind and my thoughts."
"In ancient times in the Chinese opera, singers took a bath before going onstage," she says, "to cleanse their souls, so they can put on the character. So it's no longer you."
She also kisses her hand, touches the stage and says a silent prayer: "May tonight be a great show for everyone, with no injuries."
The Washington Ballet's Andile Ndlovu also prays to the stage, carrying on a tradition from his native South Africa.
"If they wanted abundance on the farm, they would touch the ground and pray that their crops would be healthy," he says. "I put my hands on the floor and pray it will be safe, that I don't have to worry about slipperiness. If it's a long show with a lot of acts, you need to be able to trust that energy."
San Francisco Ballet corps member Bianca Teixeira, from Brazil, drapes a long necklace of yellow African beads on her dressing-room mirror and applies a sweet perfume to her wrists from a bottle that contains a Greek evil eye charm, to ward off the evil eye curse. For good measure, she recites a prayer in her native Portuguese that her mother wrote down for her, which offers extra protection against the curse.
ABT principal Hee Seo is superstitious enough outside the theater that she walks only on the white painted lines in a crosswalk, not on the unmarked pavement. But her good-luck omens in the theater involve people, rather than things. Before making her stage entrance, she always hugs and kisses her dance partner. As for a lucky charm, it's her coach, Irina Kolpakova, Seo says. Kolpakova always pops into the ballerina's dressing room between acts.
"She hasn't missed a single performance," Seo says. "When I see her, she just lights up my mood."