@TheHarperWatters lists two job titles right there in his Instagram bio—Soloist and Queen Bee—but there’s still something unexpected about watching the 26-year-old leap, twist, bend, spin, and thud across the Houston Ballet Center for Dance’s terribly scuffed floor. It’s a scene that proves this guy can actually dance, which, by now, is a reaction Watters has come to expect. “People don’t get that I do this professionally—they just think I do social media,” he says, laughing and rolling his eyes a bit.
Yet it’s a fair mistake. Watters is undoubtedly the reality TV star of his own life, packaging snippets of ballet rehearsals interspersed among poolside selfies for his 140,000 (and counting) followers. Look to his separate YouTube channel, and you’ll find all eight “seasons” of The Pre Show, a behind-the-scenes series in which he anchors dishy dressing-room conversations with fellow dancers. He even moonlights as part of the official Houston Ballet social media team, posting stories on tour and tending to the all-important grid.
Which is to say, he’s quickly risen as one of the most recognizable public faces of an art form in which not many artists look like him. And as his signature mix of sass and athletic virtuosity graces one magazine cover after another, it looks as if a gay, black, adopted dancer who grew up in sleepy Dover, New Hampshire, could be the one who makes classical ballet feel relevant—even sexy—in this social media age.
Watters, however, will be the first to tell you he didn’t arrive in the dance studio fully formed. “I was so rigid, I was so scared,” he remembers of summer 2009, when he landed in Houston for what was supposed to be a one-and-done, six-week intensive training program ahead of his senior year of performing arts high school. Sure, he’d been stunting onstage ever since he donned a gold lamé vest for his first childhood recital choreographed to “some Frank Sinatra song,” but one look at how the dancers here pointed their feet took his breath away. He realized the yawning skill gap left to cross. To him, these were artists, muses, avatars of some divine grace. As for Watters himself? He remembers teetering into the studio as a pile of elbows and nervous energy, “like a pole.”
This glimpse at an as-yet unimaginable future stoked Watters’s intense desire to pursue dance as a career. He auditioned for the ballet’s student company that summer without telling anyone. Then he got accepted, which meant the only child had to persuade his parents—both college professors—why their black, gay son should leave high school to pursue a dance career in a city that, in the popular imagination, remains at the bottom of places parents wish to send their black, gay sons.
Enter Lauren Anderson. “There is this stereotype of Texas, and she was saying that Houston Ballet is not like that,” Watters explains. It’ll be okay, she told Mr. and Mrs. Watters. This is the city that crowned her one of the country’s first female African American prima ballerinas, the city that has nurtured the career of legendary Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta. Why not Harper, too?
It was enough for his parents’ blessing, but in rehearsal, Watters still found himself struggling to express himself past the mechanical components of dance. “I really thought if I can get my leg up there, that’s all that matters, or if I can do five turns, that’s all that matters,” he says of those early days. But a lot of people can master the moves. The trick, he came to realize, was learning how to “bring Harper into my dancing.”
That transformation was slow until late 2014, when he received a pair of six-inch, powder-pink pumps as a Christmas gift from a friend. Given his “love of drama,” he strapped them on, started recording, and performed treadmill ballet routines choreographed to songs like “Fergalicious.” The outrageous videos instantly became a viral sensation, grabbing millions of views and a round of press coverage that introduced Watters to the world.
But it was also a moment of realization: “I could easily post a video of me running on treadmills in heels and boom, it’d blow up like that,” he says, “but for some reason I could not do it in the studio.” It was time, he decided, to start making choices in that studio, like sprinkling in sassy looks or exaggerating his arms. He was finally becoming Harper.
“There was definitely this parallel between my social media presence and my dancing where, if you share yourself authentically and work really, really hard, then success can be achievable,” he says, now with the accomplishments to back it up. Since the heel video, he’s been promoted from demi soloist to soloist and, last year, danced as the Nutcracker Prince (a role he will be returning to this year). This February he’ll debut as Apollo in Stanton Welch’s world-premiere Sylvia. His follower count? Up by more than 3,000 percent over the past three years. You’ll now see him post content in partnership with brands as big as Lyft and Target.
More people likely encounter Watters as an influencer than a dancer these days, but that’s okay, he says, because he’s able to draw a general audience into the ballet world. He hopes to cash in on those captive eyeballs as he grows his YouTube series, too, which could one day become a full-blown television talk show à la Wendy Williams, he says.
Watters is hazy on his show’s concept right now, but he figures he’d use the platform to further plug the world of dance. Dancers are so often relegated to mute, blank-canvas personas that prevent fans from connecting with them. The Harper Watters Show, he says, would cut to a person’s essence with questions such as: “Do you love Beyoncé? Because I love Beyoncé—what’s your favorite song?”
Then again, who knows how things will shape up? It’s just one idea for Watters’s inevitable post-ballet future, when he’ll have to rely more on his personality than his plié. He’s not worried, though. If there’s one thing he does know after being around the social media block, it’s this: “There’s never enough content.”