What Lady Gaga Can Teach Us About Branding the Dance

No, this is not satire and trust me – you don’t want to spend a Saturday morning in my head when I’ve had too much coffee!

Just the other day, one of my favorite Twitterers @FakeAPStylebook posted the following tidbit of satirical journalistic advice: “Demonstrate your relevance as a commentator by writing long-winded essays on the fact that you don’t know who Lady Gaga is.” It goes without saying that Gaga herself needs no further introduction on my part.

Though I’m not usually one for the usual Top 40 fluff, I’ve always had a something of a hero worship for Lady Gaga. Maybe it’s because I’m happy to see an artsy, kooky, intellectual misfit comme moi take the mainstream by storm. But beyond that, I think many of us in the belly dance world might want to follow Gaga’s lead. After all, it’s not like we’re trying to mainstream an art form that’s a little left-of-center ;)

Here are just a few key bullet points that I’ve discovered about why we love (or possibly, love to hate) Lady Gaga, and how we might apply her successful habits to our own personal branding:

  • Dare to Be Different – If Lady Gaga just performed killer dance music with simple-yet-catchy hooks, I’m sure she would still be popular. But her fans are drawn to the entire package – the OTT couture costuming, her affinity for dark, decadent “event” music videos, the way she comports herself with intellect and artistic savvy in interviews. Whether you love her or hate her, she is compelling. What sets you apart from “the pack?”
  • Go Ahead! Take a Risk – I wonder what the branding teams for Backstreet Boys, NSync, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera would have said if Lady Gaga showed up at their office before she made it big. They would probably tell her to ditch the funny wigs, dress in a more accessibly “sexy” way, stop pretending to be a drag queen, and write happy songs about falling in love – and maybe a token ballad about being an independent woman, for good measure. Or they’d just tell her to go home. On this note, don’t be afraid to do things a bit differently from other dancers – whether it’s your website, your photos, your style, or whatever. If objections from your peers come up, remember this sage advice from the brilliant copywriter/artist Hugh MacLeod: “Great ideas alter power balances.” If you do something differently, your peers may have to sit up and re-examine the way they do things. Just two years ago, when I was just beginning to formalize my brand, everybody asked me why I expressed so much interest in doing all my photo shoots on location instead of in a studio, behind a black backdrop, with 3/4 glamour lighting. The rationale was that the only way to get professional-looking promotional pictures is to do it in a studio. Now, a lot of dancers are having fun doing their photos on-location and citing me as inspiration. (Yes, I’m going to give myself at least partial credit for starting this trend). If you believe that something will work, stick to your guns and do it! As long as nobody gets undercut and nobody confuses you with an “adult” entertainer, of course.
  • Life is a Runway. Now Work It! Would Lady Gaga hit the red carpet wearing the same Dior gown as Celine Dion? Heck no! Of course, the costume doesn’t make the dancer. And I will probably get a swift kick in the butt for this bullet point. But having an ever-changing rotation of costumes that are uniquely you definitely helps. For me, a Polo-wearing preppy geek girl by day, costumes are the phone booth that enables Clark Kent to become Superman. If you want to make a statement, find a talented local seamstress, buy vintage pieces, or enlist a designer like Istanbul’s darling Bella or L.A.’s own amazing, up-and-coming couturier Eshta Amar who adamantly refuses to replicate their designs. Sell stuff when you get sick of it so you can always bring new goodies in. You don’t even have to spend a lot. (Despite my affinity for $1,000 costumes, I’ve been equally known to hoard $85 eBay specials and repurpose them into my own couture creations). Just buy stuff that makes you feel great. And think twice before ordering a mass-produced costume that every dancer and their cat owns.
  • Know When to Play By the Rules and When to Break Them: Despite Lady Gaga’s over-the-top presentation, she has serious vocal chops and her music is universally radio-friendly. Gaga breaks the rules from a visual standpoint, but produces catchy power-pop that makes everyone sing along and get up to dance. As a belly dancer, you don’t have to do a whole lot to be different, because many of your audiences probably have never seen a belly dancer before! And everybody appreciates classic Middle Eastern dance. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of having your own unique marketing style, or being the only tribal fusion dancer in your area, or dressing in contemporary costumes if everyone in your community prefers vintage looks. Always find your own ways to zig when they zag, but never compromise the quality and authenticity of your dance.
  • Never Underestimate the Power of a Few Stark-Raving Fans – In a recent awards speech, Lady Gaga said, “This is for God and the gays.” Gaga has always credited her success with her underground popularity among the LGBT community. Her gay and lesbian fans spread the word, and the rest is history. Think back on all of your previous clients and fans. Who would drop your business cards from a helicopter if they could? Who would go to hell and back for you? If you don’t have any stark-raving fans, get crackin’! If you do, what do your fans have in common? Understand their needs and deliver in spades. Be gracious for them. Do everything you can to bring in more people like them. And watch what happens…

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