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Texas Standard

This Houston Ballet dancer is turning an 'antiquated art form' into a platform for pride and self-expression

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Courtesy @theharperwatters/TikTok
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Stills from videos on Watters' TikTok account.

Harper Watters gained popularity on social media back in 2017 after an Instagram video featuring himself and a fellow dancer dancing in a gym wearing pink stilettos went viral. Watters has gained over 72,0000 followers on his Instagram and TikTok accounts combined, where he posts a mix of ballet and fashion-themed videos, along with ones focused on Black and LGBTQ advocacy.

Watters is a soloist for the Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the United States – and one he's been a part of for over a decade.

Texas Standard spoke with Watters about his career, and how dance a social media have been avenues for self-expression and empowerment – things he hopes can inspire his followers. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: You're getting a lot of attention right now. Is it fair to say that your viral, pink stilettos video got the whole thing rolling on social media?

Harper Watters: Definitely. I had been an avid user of social media and Instagram. When it first came out, I thought that it was just for posting your food, and I quickly realized that it was a really powerful tool of visibility and sharing my world. When I felt that I had eyes watching me – I'm a natural performer and I said, “OK, well, people are watching. I'm going to give them something to watch.” I continued to share content that was not just myself dancing, but it was my interests and what brought me joy. It's been a really, really great resource for me to lean on inside and outside of the studio as a dancer.

You moved to Houston to train with the Houston Ballet when you were 16, is that right? 

Yes, it feels like many moons ago. In 2009, I originally came for what was just to be six weeks of a summer intensive. But I was actually offered a job in the second company. It just felt like the right time and I couldn't pass that opportunity up. And so I moved here by myself when I was 16 and joined the company when I was 18, in 2011. This past year, I celebrated my 10th season with the company.

A videotape of "The Nutcracker" inspired you at a very young age to explore dance, and you’ve said that being in the studio was a kind of a sanctuary. Yet, classical ballet is often known for its lack of racial diversity and gendered roles. What was it like when you started, and how has it changed since then?

That New York City Ballet production of "The Nutcracker" that I got, really, was the first time that I had seen a little boy or a dancer of color on the screen doing something that I had never seen before. It just was the ultimate permission slip for me to say, "I can try this, too." I was adopted; I'm an only child, I'm in a biracial family. I grew up in New Hampshire. There just wasn't a lot of that for me, and you begin to accept that as your reality. And when I had the media on the screen up there, I just was drawn to it. It's something that gave me permission to do it, which has fostered my love of giving other people hope and permission to do it themselves as well.

And the dance studio – yes, it's definitely been a sanctuary. When you feel your best, you can be your best and you can dance your best. And so, I've always sought out people and support systems in the studio that make me feel my best.

There's this perception that classical ballet uses stereotyped gender roles, and is largely white. Did your experience validate that perception?

Ballet is such a unique and rare, 1% art form. So when you get in here and there's three or four Black dancers, you say, "OK, I'm seeing three or four, that's enough," when in reality, that is not enough. I was definitely the minority, not just racially, but with my sexual orientation as well. I think that's a really difficult thing: one, trying to dance against a stereotype, but it's also a difficult thing to dance and fit the stereotype.

I've had to push against people's perceptions of what a male dancer should be, because every love story in ballet is a male-to-female one, and every Disney prince has never been Black. So, trying to navigate that was a really difficult thing when I first joined the company. But social media actually gave me this immense, almost like a superhero cape of giving me the confidence to be myself. When I trusted myself, my dancing got better. I have been so grateful for that. Over the years – I've been in the game 10 years now – there's been more diversity, and there's been a broader spectrum of people stepping into the studio, which is really inspiring.

Given your presence on social media, it must be exciting to think there's kids out there who look up to you now.

I moved here when I was 16, just for ballet. I had laser vision, tunnel vision, for ballet. I had no idea and I had no intention of running on a treadmill in heels and opening up this whole other world of working with brands and companies and doing fashion spreads. But what that is is an extension of me advocating for myself. If I advocate for myself, I think it helps others advocate for themselves.

That's my way of advocating for others: waking up, taking care of myself, going to class, working, being visible and doing the work as a gay, Black dancer in an antiquated art form and being the best that I can be. I take pride in the fact that that speaks volumes to other people, and I hope that it inspires others because it pushes me to be better as well.

Last year must have been surreal for you and your colleagues because of the pandemic. Are things returning back to normal for your ballet company?

Yes, we are returning to the stage. Our full company makes its grand return with "The Nutcracker," which we are so excited about. And yes, last year was challenging. Try dancing together on Zoom in your kitchen with 60 dancers. It doesn't really work out! So, to be able to be back in the studio moving as one company, telling a story and just working together – I can't describe the feeling. It's just so exciting to be back, and we're so excited for people to come back with such an important holiday tradition that, unfortunately, was lost last year.

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