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Can Harper Watters Make Ballet Matter Again?

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Before he earned a spot as a soloist with the Houston Ballet, and before he became a social-media phenom with nearly 250,000 Instagram followers and another 470,000 devotees on TikTok, Harper Watters was an eight-year-old boy with a broken nose.

He’d suffered an unfortunate encounter with a baseball and was recuperating at home in Dover, New Hampshire, happy to leave the sport behind forever. “I remember it hurt me so much,” he said. “But I was so excited. Like, I didn’t have to go back.” One day, to pass the time, he popped in a VHS of the 1993 Warner Bros. version of The Nutcracker, which featured Macaulay Culkin and the New York City Ballet. Watters played the tape over and over, lying on his stomach on the floor of the family room, inching ever closer to the screen so he could observe the dancers’ every move.

To ballet aficionados, The Nutcracker may be little more than a fund-raising chestnut, an obligatory Christmas sop to the masses. But Watters was a Black kid from Atlanta, adopted by two white college professors in New England. There wasn’t any professional ballet in Dover, and there weren’t a lot of townspeople who looked like Watters either. The magic of the Balanchine production—the spectacular costumes, the enchanting deftness of the dancers, the compelling story of transformation—did what art is supposed to do: it transported him to a different world. 

Waiting for the imprint of the baseball to fade from his face, Watters taught himself every part in the ballet and began staging it repeatedly for his increasingly beleaguered parents. “It was just full-on performance,” he told me recently, still palpably proud. “Curating the costumes. Curating the entrances.” For the role of Mother Ginger, Watters commandeered the family’s sequined Christmas tree skirt. When he played a Russian dancer, his saber was one of the plastic candy canes that normally decorated the front yard. He made a stiff but fluttery tutu from pieces of a cardboard box. He even appropriated one of his mother’s high heels to use as the slipper Clara hurls at the Mouse King to help defeat him. “Harper is a whole lot of company,” his mother, Janice Alberghene, told me with great affection and some residual exhaustion.


WATCH: Harper Watters is a star dancer in one of the world’s most rigid, gendered, and segregated art forms.


Because he wanted his production to be perfect, Watters continued to scrutinize the Nutcracker tape with the intensity of Balanchine himself. There was one scene that always stopped him, the one in which the women of the corps de ballet leap across the stage as snowflakes on a winter night. Historically, it was meant to be a study in white: the white flakes falling from the ceiling, the white tutus of the dancers, the uniform faces of the dancers, who were—of course—all white. But in the video, one dancer was not. “There was one Black girl in the corps of the snowflakes. She obviously stuck out because”—he paused and shrugged—“snow white/dark skin.” 

Why, Watters wondered, was there only one? 

Earlier this summer, I watched Watters produce and star in an altogether different sort of one-man performance, this one an Instagram video sponsored by Converse and pegged to Pride Month. 

Watters sat on the concrete floor of a rented studio just south of downtown Houston, meticulously calibrating his iPhone on a tripod, his brow knit, his straight back perpendicular to legs splayed like a Raggedy Andy doll’s. He is a slim, perfectly proportioned man with close-cropped hair and the musculature of a Greek statue. His shy smile lights his face from within. Many male ballet dancers possess a near-androgynous beauty, and Watters is no exception. His long, heart-shaped face sets off a heart-shaped mouth. His bright eyes telegraph mischief when he isn’t intensely focused on the task at hand. 

Watters (in yellow) at a dance recital circa 1999.Watters (in yellow) at a dance recital circa 1999.
Harper Watters (in yellow) at a dance recital circa 1999.Courtesy of Harper Watters

On this day, he had draped his nearly zero-percent-body-fat frame in dad jeans and a faded, possibly ironic “Have a Nice Day” T-shirt. He’d also brought props, the most important of which rested inside a shoebox striped with the colors of the rainbow: a pair of jet-black Converse high-tops with the words “The Moment” displayed in clean white type above the heel.  

“Pride is famously the time when people are supposed to come out,” he explained in a voice that was both soft and authoritative. Watters is a lover of the singular moment, the one that embraces a particular drama, whether it be public—taking to the stage—or private or both.

He took the sneakers out of their box and ducked behind a white curtain into a makeshift dressing room. He emerged barefoot in a black leotard and padded to the center of the room. The walls were a stark white. The sun pouring in from the large windows bleached out any remaining color, so his body became an exclamation point on an otherwise blank page. 

The place was silent, save for the sound of Watters’s feet changing position. He stood in front of his tripod and tried out a few poses. Then he lifted the sneakers above his head and opened his palms, letting the shoes clatter to the floor. He did this a couple more times before setting the action to music, a mix of talk show host Wendy Williams describing Lil’ Kim laid over a swirling percussive beat (She’s an icon / She’s a legend / She is the moment!).

Satisfied, Watters strode into the dressing room and came out in another ensemble, a mesh T-shirt and some elbow-length black gloves. There were more poses, one with the glove extended, as if he expected someone to kiss his hand. Next, a sequined jacket. “Like, I would never wear this,” he confessed, a little abashed. Finally, he appeared in a leopard-spotted leisure suit, accessorized with, of course, the sneakers.

Each time the camera rolled, Watters put on an expression of hauteur that is common to both ballet dancers and catwalk stars, two types of performers with whom he is entranced. After forty minutes of costume changes, he sat down at a table and started editing the various takes on his laptop, dropping in photos of gay Black icons whose poses he had been imitating, in tribute, all along. These included but were not limited to Miss J Alexander, from America’s Next Top Model; Jeremy Pope, from Pose; and Lil Nas X (wearing a far more expensive leopard-print leisure suit than Watters’s). The final cut was a sixteen-second montage in which the key song lyric—She is the moment!—takes on an entirely different meaning, the words becoming a kind of gay anthem. 

Watters studied his work, then turned to me. His eyes were bright, his smile radiant. In that moment, he looked exactly like an eight-year-old boy who couldn’t wait to show the world what he could do.

Harper Watters photographed in downtown Houston.Harper Watters photographed in downtown Houston.
Watters photographed in downtown Houston.Photograph by Jai Lennard

Watters recently celebrated a decade with the Houston Ballet company, which he commemorated (fittingly) by creating a reel of his greatest hits set to Beyoncé’s “Countdown.” He will tell you that he is first and foremost a ballet dancer—“My life’s work has been ballet”—and that is demonstrably true. He’s the highest-ranked Black dancer within one of the country’s most prestigious and innovative companies. (Depending on how you calculate it, the Houston Ballet is either the fifth or sixth ranked company in the U.S.) But Watters is also one of those people who, because of intelligence, talent, and general restlessness, cannot contain himself.

His life as a social media sensation began almost by accident when, in December 2014, a fellow dancer wanted to stage a drag night among friends and brought in two pairs of pink heels. This was a time when five of the male dancers in the company were intensely close, all around the same age as Watters was then, 21. “We were thick as thieves,” he said. “It was like we were a cult.” Still,…

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