It was the 2015 Super Bowl. We had been rehearsing for a month, five or six days a week, eight to ten hours a day. The crowd, the noise: It was deafening. And I knew I’d have to handle a costume change — I wore a metallic horse outfit as Katy Perry performed “Dark Horse,” and would need to slip into a seven-foot-tall blue shark costume for her number “Teenage Dream.”
No matter how many times we had rehearsed this routine, I knew I could not go on autopilot. The Super Bowl is the biggest stage there is, a dream for every dancer. This was it. Now I had to give it.
After I danced, the cast and I watched the rest of the halftime show from the sidelines, and we were back at our hotel by the fourth quarter. By then I already had friends texting me: “Please tell me you were one of the sharks.” I replied that yes, I was. “Which one?” they wanted to know. I had no idea.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I began to understand what had happened. We were on the first flight out of Arizona to Burbank, California. I’d gotten up at 6 a.m. When I got off the plane and turned my phone back on, my entire voice mailbox was full. Every major network, newspaper, every agent had called. They all wanted to talk to “Left Shark.” I still have no idea how they got my phone number.
Doing something “rogue” at the Super Bowl is not an option. The NFL does not play around, especially after the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. Every rehearsal was filmed. And it was really only a few seconds, a snippet, maybe four or five counts, when I improvised in my giant blue shark costume. But people went crazy. And the phenomena of Left Shark was born.
By then I’d been dancing professionally for more than a decade. I’d worked with major artists including Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. I’d danced in all the major awards shows and in movies. I’d already been dancing with Katy for nearly five years. And there was nothing unusual about what I had done during the halftime show.
As a dancer, you take on the vibe and the energy of whatever piece you’re performing. Just because you’re working with a pop star doesn’t mean you aren’t presenting an art piece. Improvisation is part our job: We perform the choreography, but we’re also supposed to fill in the gaps. If I’m instructed to go from one side of the stage to the other, I don’t just walk across, as if I’m shopping at the mall. I was a big shark. I had to be a big shark. That’s what separates a dancer and a performing artist — the ability to fill in those gaps and to interpret the work.
And when you get a chance to improvise as a dancer, that’s your moment. It’s a gift. And you’re entrusted with those moments to improvise because you are known as an artist who can handle it.
The responses to my performance were overwhelmingly positive, including from Katy (who is an amazing person), my dance peers and the public. We were in rehearsal the next week, and I was still getting bombarded with press requests. Her managers helped me navigate the situation. (I declined to do interviews, as I didn’t want to violate my contract with Katy or with the NFL.) And she joked around with me about it, sure, but it was just another day for us. It was something to laugh about and be proud about, together. All of my fellow dancers and I had grown up watching Michael Jackson and Prince at the Super Bowl, and we’d all dreamed of being part of the halftime show. To perform with an artist at the peak of her career was a dream come true for all of us, and we all shared in the moment that was Left Shark — Katy included.
I think people were so attached to Left Shark because America loves an underdog. They love to root for one. The Super Bowl is a machine, so heavily planned and executed, and then along came this goofball. It gave people something to connect to.
I performed with Katy until the end of 2015. I believe that once a dancer, always a dancer, but I also believe in evolution. I had given my dance career a long healthy shot, and now I wanted to give my stylist career a chance. I buckled down, paused dancing, went to cosmetology school and got my license. Now I’m a hair stylist at Mare Salon in West Hollywood. My life has slowed down since the Super Bowl. But for me, fashion, hair, styling, dance — it all blends together. I’ll continue to dance and to be a stylist.
It’s been three years and we’re still talking about Left Shark. I’m glad it makes people happy. These performances should be uplifting and joyful. It did change my life — I didn’t become a millionaire, but I had lived one of the biggest dreams any dancer could imagine. It was an experience I’ll always have forever. I hope other people keep following their dreams, keep growing, and never stop being afraid to be that quintessential Left Shark.
Gaw is a professional dancer and a stylist at Mare Salon in West Hollywood.