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Dancing Beyond Limits

Houston Ballet’s Harper Watters on his social media growth, career ambitions, and breaking stereotypes.

Harper Watters (Photo by Frank Hernandez)
September 2018 cover
(Photo by Ashkan Roayaee)

Marene Gustin: First of all, do you still have those fabulous sky-high pink platforms you wore on your September 2018 OutSmart cover?

Harper Watters: Yes, I still have Kelly and Michelle, however they reside now in the social-media Louvre of my house otherwise known as my office. After filming a treadmill video, the ankle strap popped on one of them and officially put them into retirement! They had a fabulous run—or, I guess,
a fabulous strut.

Back then, you had just finished appearing in filmmaker Scott Gormley’s documentary Danseur. You had been with Houston Ballet for seven years, and you were already a big social-media star with 147,000 YouTube followers. How have things changed, and how have they stayed the same since then?
Well, I’ve managed to gain 100,000 more followers on IG, and then this little app called TikTok arrived in 2020 where I’ve amassed 580,000 followers. Putting value in follower count is probably worthy of some side-eye, but for me I’m really proud of the community I’ve built. I put a lot of thought and intention into my posts, so to have them resonate with people is really powerful for me.

Beyond the social-media growth, I’ve risen through the ranks at Houston Ballet to become the highest-ranked Black dancer and queer dancer of the company. I take class every day, I try my hardest to never become complacent, and I always continue to seek inspiration and stay curious. That mindset and work ethic has remained the same. That’s what has allowed me to keep an upward trajectory, both inside and outside of the dance studio. I also became a homeowner, which I think makes me an official Houstonian.

I look back at participating in Danseur and where I was in my career. When I did my first OutSmart cover, I had aspirations of leading a three-act ballet and getting to the top of my company. To have accomplished both of those while also planting roots in Houston makes me incredibly proud. My first OutSmart cover had me jumping with a suitcase, which for me was like saying I was on a journey, and with this cover I feel like I’m saying that I’ve arrived.

You were also single back then. Is that still the case?
Drag me! Yes, I am single, but when you’re so booked and busy, it’s hard to find time for a man! But also, my DMs are open, so whoever is reading this article and seeing this story, I am ready to be wined and dined! Let’s manifest that by my next cover, so I’ll be gushing over my man in the article.

April 2023 (Photo by Frank Hernandez)
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You’ve talked before about the challenges of being a Black, queer male in ballet. Has the ballet world become more accommodating?
The simple answer is yes. I’m the first Black and queer first soloist of Houston Ballet, and that’s a testament to the work that’s taken place over the past few years motivated by the global movement to bring justice, healing, and freedom to Black people everywhere. As a result of this movement, ballet companies had to look within, realize what this art form is built on, and how to make intentional changes. Ashton Edwards of Pacific Northwest Ballet is just one example of the growing number of nonbinary dancers feeling comfortable to dance as their authentic selves. One of my best friends, Chun Wai Chan, just became the first Asian principal at New York City Ballet. The work is working, and the results are giving success, and we love to see it.

At 31, where do you see your career in dance going from here?
There is still so much I want, and will, accomplish in my career. I’m a first soloist at Houston Ballet, a rank just below the highest rank of principal. It would be a dream to reach that rank, not only for myself but for everyone who loves and looks like me. It would be the ultimate permission for anyone who feels like they can’t try.

I’m still waiting for the chance to collaborate with Queen Bey! Yes, I have my Renaissance tickets, but the ultimate gig would be working with her! I moved to Houston for ballet when I was 16 years old and on my own, and to look back at what I’ve been able to create from ballet and a pair of heels blows my mind. The sky’s the limit, and I’m so excited to continue increasing visibility, breaking down stereotypes, and doing it fabulously!

Photo by Frank Hernandez

Fashion is very important to you. Do you see a career in that world after you retire from dance?
What I love about fashion is its transformative powers. There is something so thrilling about putting on different garments and creating a narrative with them. I feel so lucky to be able to do that in ballet, and on my own with my social media. I don’t think I’ll be sending any Harper originals down the runway anytime soon, but maybe there’s a runway or editorial that I could grace. That iconic monologue delivered in The Devil Wears Prada by Meryl Streep speaks to the influence and power of fashion. You might not be aware of it, but you are participating in fashion whether you’re shopping at Marshalls or on the cover of Vogue. I not only try to tap into that world because I love clothing, but also as a tool to have ballet be featured on a larger scale. From now to when I retire, and after, I will always rely on the art of fashion to bring me inspiration—but also to bring new audiences to ballet.

Fashion, dance, social media—what is the one thing you want your legacy to be?
It feels fitting to quote the Queen of Houston (and the world). Beyoncé has a lyric that says, “When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets. Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget I was here.” I want my legacy to be my work, my passion, my legs, and my fearlessness.

Keep up with Harper Watters on Instagram @theharperwatters.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and, among others.
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