The breakout stars of last night’s Super Bowl halftime show were, needless to say, the sharks. Flanking Katy Perry, they mutely waved their fins and flapped their jaws to the words of “Teenage Dream.” Looking less like sharks than blue, befanged sleeping bags, they made every effort to dance. But Left Shark, (who, for what it’s worth, was actually “stage right shark”), visibly struggling with the choreography, promptly became the butt of the internet’s jokes. His arrhythmic moves were endlessly memed. Gawker editor Max Read tweeted: “Tonight we are all Bad Left Shark.”
So as a professional dance critic, I’d like to offer an enthusiastic defense of Left Shark. First of all, some logistics: The anatomy of those costumes surely makes it a grueling task to even lift your arms. The eye-screens in the sharks’ mouths are so high up compared to the arms that the performers inside must be hunched over. The shark-men appear to be maneuvering some sort of handles, while also operating whatever mechanism is supposed to allow them to lip-sync the words to “Teenage Dream.” And during the final chorus, Left Shark actually raises his arms higher than Right Shark as they clap—a gesture I found more aesthetically appropriate for the high energy and high stakes of the Super Bowl halftime show.
It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of professional, classically-trained dancing duos who have strayed from their choreography. It’s not ideal when the pros can’t stay in step with the music, but it happens. Friday night, Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet performed at the Kennedy Center. The evening began with “Rite of Spring”—which features dozens of dancers trying to stomp in unison to cacophonous, polyrhythmic music. The night ended with a long excerpt from a late 19th-century story ballet called “Paquita.” And like most 19th-century story ballets, “Paquita” ends with a massive party scene in which dancers perform short variations before the guest of honor. (Usually a bride and groom, who are celebrating their nuptials after escaping from pirates or an evil wizard.)
At this particular “Paquita” party, there were the yellow girls, the red girls, the pinkish-red girls, and the blue girls. And let me tell you: those blue girls just could not get it together. The taller brunette was consistently one to three beats ahead of her shorter blond partner. Both were bearing fake grins when they took their bows. The gracious Kennedy Center Opera audience applauded.
So if a pair of Russian dancers in what is ostensibly the world’s greatest ballet company can’t stay in sync, two dancers in hulking shark costumes should be commended simply for managing to open and close their mouth holes to the beat. And most importantly for armchair shark dance critics to keep in mind: when it comes to classical dance, gracefully-coordinated arm movements are widely overrated. Even the choreographer George Balanchine didn’t obsess about his dancers’ arms—he famously cared more about the emotion behind the moves. Take it from Balanchine: We should leave Left Shark alone.