Anastasia Babayeva performing in "The Dying Swan."

Arts & Antiques

The Art of Flower Tossing

Professional ballerina Anastasia Babayeva offers insight into proper etiquette.

By Bill Conville |

The time honored technique and social tradition of audience members tossing flowers on stage to express their love, gratitude and appreciation to performing artists is unique in the arts. It is perhaps the most public and visible way of saying thanks to an artist for a superb performance. The tradition of the affectionate flower toss began long ago and carries an elaborate social history.

Over 150 years ago, the audience ritual was born in the world of classical ballet performances at aristocratic courts in Europe. Over time, the affectionate flower toss migrated to the stages of opera, theater and symphony concerts.

Despite changes in societal norms, the tradition remains alive in large metropolitan areas, including throughout the United States. “Ballet, the most precise and traditional of theater arts, has the most elaborate traditions of flower-giving. Bouquets of roses and other showy flowers are, and should be given, to select female dancers, the conductor and the choreographer at curtain call by theater management,” explains Anastasia Babayeva, a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and current artistic director of the Academy of International Ballet in Media, Pa.

She has plenty of experience with this beloved ritual. “When the performance ends and the curtains close one feels the magnetic pull of deafening applause from the audience, requiring you to step back on stage for curtain calls to bow with sincere humility and warm appreciation,” explains Babayeva. She describes the feeling as trance-like, still embodying the character she’d portrayed. “The trance between you and the audience quickly meshes with reality when you see gorgeous colorful flowers being hand delivered to you.”

That moment, of showing appreciation and admiration for an artist like Babayeva, requires attention to etiquette. “Fans can deliver their own accolades, raining down showers of rose petals or tossing entire bouquets at the stage,” she adds.

When tossing flowers, attendees are expected to remove thorns and any sharp tips so as not to injure anyone. As for the toss itself, the proper way to toss a bouquet is stem first to help propel them to the intended. “Many times flowers accidently land in the lap, shoulders or on the heads of the musicians in the orchestra pit,” Babayeva says. “The thoughtful musicians almost always assist by quickly and quietly tossing the flowers onto the stage.”

While most choose to adorn performers on stage, some wish to present their bouquets in person, following the performance, which is the custom. “Ballet dancers are quite superstitious,” Babayeva explains. “Never offer flowers before a performance. It could emotionally upset the dancers and possibly their performance.” For those who do present flowers after a performance, there is, unsurprisingly, specific etiquette to follow there, as well. Bouquets should be removed from plastic wrap and tied together in some fashion, usually by decorative ribbons, “allowing the dancers to hold the bouquet on just one arm,” she says.

For those who don’t have flowers, but wish to show their appreciation, there is another, lesser-known ritual. “In many European theaters, especially Italy, some fans who may not have immediate access to flowers simply shred their paper programs into slices of confetti and then shower the artists from the upper balconies,” Babayeva says.

Regardless of what is thrown, flowers are much appreciated by artists. “The size or quantity of the flowers is not that important. Even small flowers are noticed and appreciated,” says Babayeva. “The flowers always brings internal warmth to my soul. It’s an exhilarating experience to receive such adoration and love from your audience. You have just given them your soul through your performance and now you know they truly received and appreciated it,” she adds, of the personal significance of gifted flowers. “It is an incredible and memorable feeling to stand on stage in a blizzard of gentle colorful flowers and feel them delicately falling down on my head and shoulders and feet. Few experiences in life can match the feeling of going home after a performance with your arms full of affectionate flowers.”

Despite it’s enduring popularity, over the years flower tossing has been limited on some stages, so that it is only acceptable at galas or farewell performances. Babayeva isn’t in favor of such restrictions. “The flower toss should remain a spectacular and very emotional part of ballet tradition and also in other theatrical performances, both nationwide and here in our region. It is a lovely tradition that I hope will never fade away,” she says.

It would be a shame to not continue this steadfast tradition so that future beloved dancers can experience, as Babayeva says, “the stage floor upon which you’ve just danced become a carpet of colorful soft petals at your feet.”