Harper Watters is a first soloist at the Houston Ballet, making him the highest-ranked Black, queer dancer at the company. (Photo courtesy of Bronson Farr)

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

When Harper Watters was just 16, he left his family in New Hampshire and moved to Texas to join the second company of the Houston Ballet, the fifth largest ballet company in the U.S. 

He had auditioned for the company per his dance teacher’s encouragement but without telling his parents. When Watters was accepted, he knew he couldn’t squander the opportunity. 

Today, the 30-year-old is a first soloist at the Houston Ballet. He’s the first Black, queer person to hold this position and the highest-ranked Black person at the company. He’s also become a social media sensation with over 800,000 followers spanning TikTok and Instagram. 

If he allowed himself to be driven away by society’s stigmas and stereotypes surrounding male dancers, Watters said he would have had serious regrets. 

Although he is now a professional ballet dancer, Watters wasn’t always aware that he could make a career out of his passion. 

[The dance studio] was a place where I felt like I had permission to explore, but I just never had the representation, or visibility, or knowledge that you could have a career in dance,” said Watters. 

As a child, Watters was extremely energetic. He was always moving, and he loved music.  

His mother and father were both English professors and had an immense understanding and appreciation of the arts. In the evenings, the family would tune into PBS together, and during the summers, his parents would give him additional books for summer reading assignments. 

When Watters’ interest in dance arose, his parents supported him. Later, he’d realize this was a luxury that many other male dancers were not afforded. 

In elementary school, Watters was finally able to take dance classes. His parents took care to choose a school that would offer it as an elective, and Watters began to take a liking to ballet. 

One Christmas, he was given a VHS of the New York City Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” by his parents. The present has remained one of his all-time favorites. 

Although the performance predominantly featured White dancers, during one scene, Watters spotted a Black ballerina. He experienced a strong connection to the dancer, and he felt like he was finally gaining permission to pursue ballet. 

Harper Watters is a first soloist at the Houston Ballet, making him the highest-ranked Black, queer dancer at the company. (Photo courtesy of Bronson Farr)

[There] was just something about ballet that was so refined and so simple, and it gave me this clean palette just to make something of my own,” said Watters. “I felt like it was so regimented that it was almost giving you the tools to do what you want with it.” 

Continuing his training, the studio quickly became Watters’ haven, a place where he said he felt comfortable turning up the volume on his identity. 

Watters went on to attend Walnut Hill School for the Performing Arts for high school, and after just one year, he got his spot in the Houston Ballet’s second company in 2009. 

Two years later, he was hired as an apprentice at the Houston Ballet. He continued to perfect his craft and rise through the ranks until becoming first soloist in 2021. 

Being Black, male and queer, Watters struggled to find his place in the company at times. Classical ballets typically depict love stories between men and women that conform to stereotypical gender roles. 

The male is expected to be heroic and masculine. 

Although other performances differed from traditional romantic tales, Watters still found it difficult to envision himself in the roles and aspire to have them.

“I could work on my turns. I could work on my jumps. I could work on my body,” said Watters. “But, I couldn’t change who I loved, and I couldn’t change the color of my skin, and that was a challenge for me.” 

Following the racial reckoning of 2020, Watters has noticed the traditions of ballet interfere less with his Blackness and more with his sexuality. He’s struggled to understand why it’s so controversial for ballet to become more progressive. 

However, he’s begun to see more choreographers start to slowly transform ballet, whether through exploring physicality and contact between dancers or through allowing dancers to partner with those of the same gender. Watters hopes these efforts will continue. 

Since finding fame on TikTok with his viral heel treadmill videos, people have questioned whether Watters will continue doing ballet professionally. But, being just one promotion away from principal, the highest rank in ballet, he knows he won’t be able to take his final bow until he attains the title. 

“I hope my [presence] on stage is a permission slip for people to not just say, ‘I want to dance,’ but to give them the permission to say, ‘I want to try what makes me happy,’’’ said Watters.

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