If you Google dancer Harper Watters, you’ll come up with a variety of results: His work as a soloist with the Houston Ballet, his hilariously candid YouTube channel and Instagram page, his growing profile as an influencer, and many, many mentions of stilettos. It’s a fitting amalgamation of the multifaceted approach Watters is taking to his career, turning the sometimes rigid world of ballet on its toe shoes by being authentically, unapologetically himself.
“You know, I think that I’ve always been very opinionated and I’ve always been very outspoken,” Watters told The Root. “But it was learning how to apply that to my work and my life, and knowing when to really push that and just hone it in to my advantage and to use it to my best. And that has been something that has taken me lots of time to learn—I’m still kind of learning that. But the confidence and acceptance of myself happened quicker outside of the dance studio than it did inside of the studio.”
But merging his playful personality and his demanding profession ultimately proved to be a breakthrough for Watters, after a video of him and another company member tackling their post-rehearsal workout in pink platform stilettos instantly went viral in the summer of 2017.
Interestingly, the heels were a gift, and the performance impromptu.
“We were in the gym and the shoes were just sitting there. And we were like, ‘could you imagine if we went on the treadmill with these? Like, how funny,’” Watters laughed. “It was not like, ‘We are making a viral heel video, and it is going to be a success.’ It was just real spur of the moment—we put them on, filmed the video, and I posted it and went about my day—and the response was just really overwhelming.”
That response provided a crucial opening for Watters, who admits to having sometimes struggled with reconciling the formal aspects and expectations of being a “danseur” (a male ballet dancer) with the more vivacious aspects of his personality, which he describes as his “hyper femme” side.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Harper, you are just being yourself on the treadmill, heels and all. Bring your sass into your work. Bring your attitude, bring your confidence. Share yourself; pull some emotions that you feel in those heels into your dancing. Play with the music—take risks with that step, kind of give an attitude there’—and that is what really lifted my dancing. And when I found that parallel between my social media and my dancing, that’s when everything really took off. ... I really used the heel videos as a way to bring people into my world.”
Raised as the adoptive child of Caucasian parents in New Hampshire (his father is David Watters, a Democratic state senator), Watters admits he grew up accustomed to people looking at him “in a different way.”
“I kind of was aware of that, and at first, it was a bit uncomfortable. But I quickly turned it into, ‘Well if you’re looking at me, now I have your attention, so I’m going to show you what I’m about,’” he told us. “And I don’t know why it took me so much longer to apply that mentality to my dancing, because I did stick out as an African American ballet dancer. You know, there weren’t a lot of people in the studio who looked like me, and at first I thought that was a disadvantage. But I worked so hard to get to where I am now that if you’re looking at me, I’m going to hold your attention by showing you my my hard work.”
His hard work paid off. After his parents placed him in dance classes to channel his tendencies as a “constant mover,” Watters found a safe space in the ballet studio, which inspired him to train harder. At age 14, he enrolled in a performing arts boarding school. Soon after, he was sent down to Houston for a summer intensive with the Houston Ballet. By the end of that summer, he was offered a contract with their second company, which he calls the “minor league” of the profession.
“You know, being a dancer of color at the time, I didn’t really have many inspirations in the classical ballet world. I looked towards dancers in Alvin Ailey and these kind of predominantly more modern-based contemporary companies, like Complexions or Lines, and less towards the classical ballet companies, just because I didn’t think it was possible,” Watters told us. “[but] I saw dancers who were in that second company during the summer program and I said, ‘I want to dance like that. I have to dance like that.’ ... I just was so inspired and so motivated.”
At only 16, he accepted the contract, moving to Houston alone. After two years (in 2011), he joined the primary company as an apprentice. In 2016, he was elevated to demi-soloist, and in December 2017 was promoted to the soloist rank. It’s been a steady rise—but not without its struggles, according to the now 26-year-old Watters.
“Ironically, I feel like when I joined the company in Houston is when I struggled with being myself the most,” he said. “I really thought that I had made it and I had it all figured out. But then I joined the company and I saw the talent, and I saw the expectations of me, and I really felt like I had to be something I wasn’t to try and slip into a certain mold of what I saw the more successful dancers doing and being.”
Watters and other male ballet dancers detail the homophobia, harassment and stigmas they’ve almost unilaterally encountered in the recently-released documentary, Danseur. Watters admitted to us that while filming, he dialed back his personality a bit in favor of keeping the focus on himself as a dancer.
It’s a type of code-switching we don’t always consider. Watters recalls growing up “obsessed” with Naomi Campbell, America’s Next Top Model, and Destiny’s Child (he’s now an ardent member of the Hive), and finding relatable and revelatory new models for masculinity in RuPaul’s Drag Race and the casts of Queer Eye. But in the process, he also became well accustomed to compartmentalizing.
“I would have all these interests that I thought I’d have to suppress because it wasn’t associated with the classical ballet world,” he said. “And it really wasn’t until I brought more of myself, and remembered the joy that I had as a child dancing that my dancing as a professional elevated. ...
“It’s not like one day I woke up and was like, ‘I’m going to shatter gender ideals.’ It was much more about [how] I saw the result of what happened when I was myself and when I accepted myself fully, and so I was like, ‘I need to do that more.’ And so, it’s been this really kind of invigorating process of really realizing the power of authenticity and the power of being yourself and what that can accomplish, and seeing people respond to it, saying ‘thank you for standing up for this, and representing this.’”
Major brands and outlets have responded, too. Since his viral video, Watters has shot videos for Elle, Marie Claire, and The Advocate, has partnered with household names such as Target, Pottery Barn and Urban Outfitters, and graced the cover of Dancespirit Magazine, among many others. So what’s next?
“I love pushing the boundaries of what people think the ballet dancer can and should do,” Watters laughs. “I’ve never heard of a ballet dancer having a talk show. Does a ballet dancer have a collaboration with Gucci? Chanel? I’ve never heard of that happening. ... I want more opportunities where people are seeing something, reading something for the first time, and they’re shocked because they’ve never seen a ballet dancer there before. And I hope that individual is me, in a full kick, right in their face, you know?”
It’s that kind of confidence and fearlessness that have been crucial to Watters’ evolution as an artist, something he plans to continue cultivating.
“Now, I think that it’s kind of my personal obligation and goal in life to share my success, and to hopefully motivate other people to do the same,” he said.
“I think for me, the end goal is complete and authentic inclusivity in not only the ballet world, but just in the world,” Watters continued. “It is, for some reason, very challenging for people to accept things and confront things that make them feel uncomfortable. ... The majority of people will retract and turn away or react with negativity, rather than inquiring and trying to find other common ground to connect with. And so with what I share, and how I dance, and how I try to live my life, I’m trying to share every aspect of myself so that I’m giving people as much of an opportunity to try and find something to connect with, so I can show them that we do really connect—maybe if it’s on one level or if it’s 50 levels. But there is a commonality within all of us that I think that we should be trying to achieve.”
Harper Watters is currently starring as “The Nutcracker Prince” in the Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, now through December 29.