Can Harper Watters Make Ballet Matter Again?

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.

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.

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, the shoes made them nervous. “We were fine with being flamboyant,” Watters said. “But this idea of drag seemed to be taboo.”

But the shoe bearer was leaving the company. They couldn’t turn down his final request. So Watters and another dancer, Rhys Kosakowski, put on the heels and ran around the ballet’s gym like, well, proud gay men in pink stilettos. Then Watters posted the video on his Instagram. Suddenly he was watching the number of likes soar. “In retrospect, it wasn’t a lot of views,” Watters said, but it was enough to suggest new possibilities. “Oh my God, Rhys, we are celebrities!” he told Kosakowski. “We need to do this again!”

They did, worrying much more about lighting and choreography. And music: for one of their creations a few years later, they cued up Fergie’s “Fergalicious,” hopped on side-by-side treadmills, and started prancing, dancing, racing, and more. At one point Watters did the splits across the two treadmills’ handles. The video got more than a million views, and Harper Watters became a viral sensation.

In the time since, his posts have run the proverbial gamut, from a reel of him performing as the prince in, yes, the Houston Ballet’s version of The Nutcracker to Watters’s sashaying down a Manhattan street, his body concealed under a voluminous coat of pink ruffles. Other posts feature Watters in various dance, fashion, and LGBTQ magazines. And there are many, many photos of Watters the influencer, often accessorized in some measure of drag. Boxes of swag mailed to him from RuPaul’s Drag Race send him into a swoon. “I’m friends now with a lot of the queens from the show,” he told me. “It’s a real full-circle moment.” His list of clients is long and growing and includes MAC cosmetics, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Polo. Companies send him everything from platform heels—he’s inundated with them—to deodorant and more in hopes of a promo. One of his recent videos featured a Christmas morning–style opening of a mountain of packages from a kitchenware company. Watters performed a pas de deux with a hefty Dutch oven.

During the pandemic, after the Houston Ballet closed its doors, his fame continued to grow. Watters’s videos became a kind of therapy, not just for his viewers but also for Watters himself. The loss of an entire season from a dancer’s career, which can span less than a decade, was traumatic. “It was a dead stop,” said Watters, now 29. “To have studios close down, there was no space to move, to train. It was like my powers were being sucked out.”

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement also inspired him to make more overtly political content. Watters is a gay Black man in one of the most rigid, gendered, and segregated art forms in existence, classical ballet. In the past, that would have made him an outcast, but he has now achieved a degree of fame uncommon in the world of dance. In fact, Watters has double the Instagram followers of his employer.

Today, the Harper Watters brand promotes dance alongside LGBTQ and Black issues; the content is often sponsored by corporations that are, depending on your point of view, supporting or exploiting those causes. But his brand is also sui generis. In his videos, Watters turns tropes about queerness and masculinity on their head. Rather than tapping into outrage—the go-to move on social media—he disarms. The implicit question Watters poses is If I can have so much fun, why can’t you?

Even when he is serious, he has a light, absurdist touch. In an Instagram post from December 2020, he used a split-screen effect to parody a video of a maniacally smiling white guy who gradually changes from a T-shirt and shorts into combat fatigues while he pantomimes shooting a pistol over a soundtrack of tinkly music and gunshots. On the other side of the split screen, Watters, wearing workout gear, watches him contemplatively—maybe a little contemptuously—until the final moment, when he cuts to himself in red heels, aviators, a giant Afro wig, and a turquoise minidress of billowing tulle. Somehow, the juxtaposition makes the combat guy look, well, ridiculous. Watters had stumbled upon the video while scrolling through TikTok recommendations—maybe the algorithm had a sense of humor?—and quickly came up with the concept. “I just thought it was such toxic masculinity,” Watters said.

A recent project with Reebok also showcases Watters’s insistence that ballet requires just as much athletic prowess as more macho competitive sports. Linebackers, after all, don’t have to lift another human above their heads and carry them around for extended periods, all while making it look effortless. “Harper is breaking down these boundaries of what an athlete is,” said Christina Jones, Watters’s representative at Digital Brand Architects. (Like most successful influencers, Watters has both an agent and a branding company behind him.)

His success has brought plenty of material benefits. Watters recently bought a one-bedroom town house not too far from the ballet, and this year was the first time he’s ever had to hire an accountant. (“What are you talking about?” he asked when the accountant brought up deductions.) Watters isn’t the only dancer to use social media to his advantage. Misty Copeland, the first Black principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, arguably the country’s most prestigious company, has 1.8 million Instagram followers. While she uses her platform mostly to highlight her dancing, she has also reckoned with the racism of the ballet world, to great effect. James Whiteside, a principal dancer and choreographer also with ABT, has 345,000 followers who are treated not only to his rehearsals but to his life as a gay man with a love of drag.

Watters’s situation is different because as a soloist he ranks below principal, the highest position company dancers can achieve. His videos have made him a star, unlike Copeland or Whiteside, whose star power in ballet gave them social media cred. Watters has become a change agent, not just through circumstance but through force of will.

In turn, he may be amassing a power few dancers have commanded in the past, when artistic directors had total say over which dancers got what roles, how they performed them, how much they were paid, and what opportunities they were afforded in their careers. “There’s very little fairness in that world, or even the idea that fairness should be in that world,” explained Julia Foulkes, a cultural historian at the New School, in Manhattan. The world of dance may consider itself a meritocracy, she continued, “but that meritocracy has been manipulated—by race, by who is somebody’s muse, by who is sleeping with who.”

At least, up to now.

I ’ve always been self-aware,” Watters told me one day when we were chatting over Zoom. The phrase comes up often when he talks about the formative elements of his past, but each time I heard it I wondered whether he was mixing up self-awareness with self-consciousness, whether he was still sorting out the difference for himself between being watched and being seen. “When I was a kid, I quickly realized I was adopted because of how people would look at my family, asking, ‘Are you guys together?’ ”

Can Harper Watters Make Ballet Matter Again?

There’s something almost Dickensian about Watters’s story. He was born in Atlanta and was immediately put up for adoption; his biological father was incarcerated at the time, and little is known about his birth mother except that she had a deep desire to give her child a better life than her own. Working with an agency, she chose as his parents a New England couple, Janice Alberghene and David Watters, on the basis of autobiographies she’d requested from several couples. She was Black; they were white. They were literature professors, and both earned doctorates from Brown University. David became a New Hampshire state senator in 2012, after serving several years in the lower house. Janice taught at Fitchburg State University and is an expert in children’s literature. The couple was comfortable, not rich, but what must have come through was a commitment to raise a child whose differences, whatever those might be, would be nurtured. “What was wonderful about Harper is how he led us into new places and helped us understand who he needed to be,” David told me.

Watters seemed to have known early on that if he was going to be watched, he might as well give people something to look at. It helped that he was preternaturally charming. “In stores he would just naturally attract other people’s attention,” Alberghene said of routine shopping trips with her son. An active kid, Watters was always moving, always restive; he had the ability and desire to turn everything into a performance. When he showed an interest in gymnastics, his father bought him a balance beam. Watters, in turn, staged a mini-Olympics with his parents as judges every night before supper. “He would do these elaborate routines,” David recalled. “We would have to sit there silently and put up pieces of paper that held the score. It couldn’t be a 9.8. It had to be a 10.”

Eventually, his parents put him in a dance class in their neighborhood. “I thought, ‘Dammit, kid, if you want to dance so much, you can dance in front of other people besides us,’ ” Janice said wryly.

That was it. After encouragement from various teachers, Watters applied for a summer ballet program, which, once completed, made two things clear to the then fourteen-year-old: he wanted to be a dancer, and he was gay. He later explained his next move in Teen Vogue and, typical of Watters, played all parts in the ensuing drama: “I remember watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model, completely enthralled by the statuesque glamazon that is Miss J. Alexander. I’m not sure if it was his confidence, his shade, his melanin, or all of the above, but it motivated me to come out to my parents that day. I felt like Tyra Banks, and my parents were the two models in front of me. Instead of their photos, I had my sexual identity to share with them. When I told them, I immediately felt a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Still, it must have been anticlimactic. “Oh, honey,” his mother said, taking her son in her arms, “we kind of knew.” By then Watters had already (successfully) lobbied his parents to send him to an arts boarding school in Massachusetts. Despite being a gifted athlete, he had been bullied in elementary school for being effeminate. “I was an only child, closeted growing up. I didn’t have sleepovers. I was never invited to group things, group hangouts. I think I was really hungry for affection,” he told me.

At boarding school, he found himself at last surrounded by kids more like himself. Many talented boys drop out of dance because of bullying by their peers, but Watters had navigated himself into a safe space where he could also freely binge on the popular culture he adored: MTV, musical theater, and Queer Eye, which he had watched covertly at home. The summer before his senior year of high school, he secretly auditioned for and was accepted into a year-round dance program, the Houston Ballet Academy. When he finally told his parents, they had to let him go. “The hunger was just radiating off Harper,” Janice recalled. In 2009 the seventeen-year-old took his place at the barre, finishing high school online the next year. “As far as Harper and dance, I’ve always said he was the engine and we were the caboose,” Janice told me. “He was just going forward.”

Stanton Welch, the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, said that when Watters was starting out as a student in the academy, “he was a very interior person, not the online Harper at all, almost an introvert. He was kind of in his brain, solving problems.” As he became more comfortable, a more carefree, somewhat overconfident Watters emerged. Soon after, he discovered that his teachers were not as willing as his parents to award him perfect 10s. But he listened and learned and threw himself into punishing work in the studio. He became what he and other dancers describe as a “bunhead,” all work and very little play.

But the sacrifice paid off. By 2011 he’d earned a coveted spot as a member of the company; the same year, he won several awards for his dancing, including first prize in contemporary dance at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne Ballet competition. In 2017 he was made a soloist. “He is someone who has never stopped growing,” Welch said. “The confidence he gained online he directed into his work.”

There was something else too. Because his father worked in politics as well as education, Watters was exposed to a class of people that few others encounter—specifically the presidential candidates and major donors who paraded through New Hampshire every four years. From an early age, he knew how to talk to strangers, including the likes of Al Gore and the Clintons, which later served him well at Houston Ballet fundraisers. “At the annual gala, he just makes it more fun for everybody,” former board chair Phoebe Tudor told me. “Harper turns up in some fabulous outfit, and he dances with other dancers and patrons.”

Watters also owes his success to a fateful synergy. Yes, he was smart and clever and enjoyed a mutual love affair with the camera. But his dance career was also taking off in tandem with a much wider acceptance of the LGBTQ community—the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015; around that time, RuPaul’s Drag Race became mainstream TV—as well as the explosion of social media. “There’s a culture and a connection between drag, gay men’s worlds, and the dance worlds, and it’s just being put on display now and much more overtly than it was in the past,” said Foulkes, the cultural historian. Straight fans may not realize that Watters’s posing and prancing has antecedents in the Black and Latino ballroom scene of the sixties and seventies. “As dancers, every performance is like a drag show,” Watters said, quoting a mentor. The costumes, the makeup, the lavish sets, and, often, the movement in classical ballet tend to be over the top for a reason: a dancer has to convey emotion to an audience member in the highest balcony without saying a word. So a few episodes of Drag Race can be instructive.

At the same time, male dancers are still expected to appear hypermasculine in the old narrative ballets, which means many performers have to hide who they are when onstage. That they have bodies perfected to a masculine ideal and spend hours in constant motion lifting hundred-pound women isn’t always enough. As Whiteside, the American Ballet Theatre star (and sometime drag queen) explains in his new autobiography Center Center, “The gulf between man and woman is deep in the world of classical ballet. The stories simply don’t allow for much variation, unless you’re some sort of mincing villain. I thought that by becoming a ballet dancer, I was doing something super gay, but it turns out my life’s work is just another hetero-normative endeavor.”

That is evolving as new choreographers change the substance of ballet. Men are no longer “cranes” whose main purpose is to lift women and carry them across the stage. Newer works feature men dancing with men and women dancing with women in less gendered, more abstract roles. As Foulkes explained, someone like Watters is “making gender fluidity a part of the conversation in a form that was founded upon the notion that women do this and men do that. Modern dance began to break that apart. Ballet has resisted that change, and now it’s being pushed to the forefront with dancers like him.”

Still, the self-consciousness that bedevils all dancers, who spend their careers practicing in front of a mirror, remains. Watters recalled corrections from ballet masters—as in “Your hips are moving too much”—and found that his creativity was stifled when he forced himself to be conventionally masculine. It wasn’t until he began experimenting with gender on social media (see the infamous pink-heels video) that he found he could free himself to be a better dancer. “I came out of the closet literally and figuratively, thinking I had to put on a costume to do something, when I was fine as I was,” he said.

Not that it’s always easy. “i spit on the animal that gave you birth,” someone once commented on Watters’s Instagram. Wrote another: “Lord I pray for this man’s demons to come out of him. He is NOT a she!!” And so on.

In response, Watters did what Watters does: in an Instagram post, he took screenshots of the comments and layered them alongside a photo of himself dancing.

It probably says a lot about the cultural status of classical ballet that one of the premier dancers in the field can order a coffee without being recognized, but that is what happened, or didn’t happen, when Lauren Anderson stood at the counter of Houston’s EQ Heights coffee shop to pay for her iced latte. Her pointe shoes may be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, but none of the caffeine addicts hunkered over their laptops in the shop on Heights Boulevard bothered to even glance up at her.

Anderson is not particularly tall, but her biceps would make Terminator star Linda Hamilton think twice about challenging her to an arm wrestle. More to the point, she speaks so intensely and her gestures are so expansive that you might suspect she is somebody, even if you don’t know exactly who. In fact, in 1990, Anderson became only the second Black female principal dancer in a major American ballet company. (Debra Austin, with the Pennsylvania Ballet, was the first, in 1982.) From the time she joined the Houston Ballet in 1983 until her retirement in 2006, Andersontoured the world with, and was the star of, the company, where she still remains as a director of education and community engagement.

Anderson first spied Watters in 2009, when he was that shy, gangly seventeen-year-old member of the summer program. “Whenever I see a child—and I’m going to be specific, a Black child—walk in the doors of Houston Ballet Academy, I am on them,” Anderson said. Like so many people before and after, she succumbed immediately to the Watters aura and became his protector and mentor. “I saw this sweet, protected child I just wanted to nurture. I wanted to make sure he was okay emotionally. I didn’t have to worry about him technically being okay because he was in the best place for that.” So protective was Anderson that in an early meeting she threw some serious shade at the white woman who was grilling her about Houston—before realizing the woman was Watters’s mother.

Watters slipped into EQ a few minutes after Anderson, and she hugged him like a son. The difference in their ages—Anderson is now 56—meant they could be taken for parent and child, especially when Watters began advising her on making her first TikTok post.

“Let me look into some trends,” Watters said, beginning to scroll intently through his phone. “I already have some ideas.”

A discussion of costuming followed. “I’ve got pumps!” Anderson said excitedly. Then Watters started talking about a split-screen duet. Once he tagged her, voilà! She would have instant followers. “You mean I’ve gotta interact with these people?” she asked, stricken.

Seeing how close they were, it was hard not to think of something else they had in common. Anderson’s and Watters’s success can be at least partly attributed to geography. Most stories about exceptional Texas arts institutions have two things in common. Usually the organizations were created in something of a vacuum, on the belief that it was better to grow your own talent than to import it, and most were supported by board members with deep pockets who were committed to transcending negative Texas stereotypes. That’s how an Englishman named Ben Stevenson came to be artistic director of the Houston Ballet, in 1976. Before the ambitious board hired him, he had danced in some of Britain’s most prestigious companies and had been a director of the National Ballet, in Washington, D.C. He would spend the next 27 years building the Houston Ballet, formed in 1955, from an eccentric local troupe into an international sensation, with a broad, often daring repertory. One of his first acts was to further professionalize the company by establishing an academy to train its own dancers and end the ballet’s dependence on visiting guest stars, as was common in many second-tier companies.

Stevenson was famously—and uniquely—willing to hire and promote dancers of color, which enabled him to nurture and then feature principals like Li Cunxin and Carlos Acosta, male dancers of spellbinding power and grace. And there was Anderson, who started as a child at the school of ballet before winning entry to the company as a teenager. She still remembers the gasps in the audience when they first caught sight of her as the Sugar Plum Fairy in her first Nutcracker performance. A few years earlier, she’d demurred when Stevenson cast her in the starring role in Alice in Wonderland. “I can’t be Alice,” she told him. “Alice is white.”

For his trouble, Stevenson got death threats for putting Anderson in lead roles, and she controlled her demons (and her physical pain) for a time with alcohol and cocaine. At her best, though, there was no one like her: Anderson challenged the stereotype of the fragile ballerina with a joy and a dynamism that was like nothing before or since. She was Stevenson’s muse, dancing in ballets he created specifically for her, to international acclaim. As Anderson’s frequent partner Acosta said in a Houston Ballet documentary, “We were able to break the ice and break this mold in Houston.”

It would be nice to think that times have changed completely for Black dancers in the period between Anderson’s career and Watters’s, but that just isn’t so. Classical ballet was created by and for elites—white men of European ancestry—and such men still control most classical ballet companies. For the most part, dancers are still built a certain way: tall, thin, light-skinned. The uniformity of the line was always paramount—and continues to be. Major ballet companies around the world still hew to that aesthetic, aside from those specifically created for Black dancers, such as Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. (Many Black dancers are automatically advised to try for slots in those companies as their best shot at a professional career or to switch to modern dance, where the choices are broader.) Just this August, Makhar Vaziev, the artistic director of the famed Bolshoi Ballet, in Moscow, defended his use of blackface in a particular ballet by claiming, “Yes, there is some use of blackface, but it’s very sweet and everything is done with love.”

Listening to Anderson and Watters compare careers, then, is both inspiring and frustrating. Both credit the Houston Ballet—Stevenson and, in Watters’s case, its current artistic director, acclaimed Australian choreographer Welch—with giving them safe harbor to be themselves and to grow on- and offstage. It’s more like a family than most hierarchical ballet companies—Welch actually encourages his dancers to have children—and most Houston dancers of color would say they’ve faced more racism from visiting choreographers or while touring than within the company. Still, classical ballet is as rigid in its structure as the military. And the persistent popularity of the old story ballets—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, to name only a few—have historically meant white faces onstage. “You just weren’t right for the part” remains a statement long used by artistic directors as a cover for discrimination.

The reckoning that followed the murder of Houstonian George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police last year, however, finally forced some hard conversations. In a fairly unprecedented move, the leadership of the Houston Ballet held multiple Zoom meetings to discuss current concerns and past grievances, including previously unacknowledged racism in upcoming productions such as Madame Butterfly.

Anderson and Watters were tapped to help expand diversity programs and create a conversation series called “Breaking Boundaries,” which highlighted local dancers of color, past and present. The stories those dancers told weren’t so different from the stories Black dancers have told for decades: they get complaints about not powdering their faces white enough or not dyeing their shoes dark enough to match their skin color. (Only recently have manufacturers begun making ballet shoes for dark-skinned dancers on a large scale.) Hair is also an issue. “Looking the part is another way of saying you have to look like the white people here to pass for the prince. There were African princes with this haircut,” Nazir Muhammad, a Black dancer from Brooklyn, noted of his fade at the time. “Maybe just not a Disney prince.”

Most Black dancers have had the experience of being the only one in a rehearsal room—or, worse, being one of two and knowing that just one of them is likely to be included in a piece. Black dancers also worry that speaking up will paint them as too loud, too aggressive, too angry. In turn, a kind of self-censorship and self-sabotage sets in. Watters, like Anderson, at certain times stopped envisioning himself in some classical roles because he didn’t believe he would ever be allowed to perform them.

And though some of the conversations after Floyd’s death were productive, Watters also found himself cast in an uncomfortable role common to Black people in mostly white organizations: that of official spokesperson for his race. “I definitely felt like I had a responsibility to speak up, be a leader,” he said. “I was the highest-ranked Black dancer [in Houston]. I have a platform, I have no problem speaking my mind, but what I didn’t anticipate was the pressure and weight that would bring, given the intensity of the topic. Calling out an organization’s missteps as a dancer, a role that is incredibly subservient, was difficult. I felt like I was overstepping. I was nervous of repercussions. I didn’t want my dancer hat to be revoked because I was using my justice hat. It became too much. So I distanced myself from that work with Houston Ballet.”

Ultimately, he felt the act of dancing—of being a Black man onstage—was the best way for him to bring about social change. “There are things I want to accomplish as a dancer, which I believe is political in itself: who I am, who I love, what I look like,” he said.

As of today, the Houston Ballet has 5 Black dancers in a company of 59, which is a higher proportion than at other prominent companies. Watters, like Anderson, believes change will take time, that success will come with more recruitment and training. Anderson has been especially active in Houston’s public schools.

“You can’t just snap your fingers and have a diverse company,” Watters said. “And you can’t just shove someone out onstage expecting them to execute difficult moves because they look a certain way. The work has to be done outside the studio, and I hope ballet companies do that. It’s hard to have dreams if you don’t know it’s possible.”

In mid-July, Watters started eyeing a welcome return to the stage. He was selected to join several other members of the company to perform at the famed Massachusetts dance venue Jacob’s Pillow at the end of the summer, and he was as anxious as he was excited. “It’s weird to wake up and have the first thought be performance,” he told me, a nervous laugh revealing his jitters. “It’s such a weird moment right now. I didn’t know how much I needed it.”

In a cavernous, almost painfully bright rehearsal studio at the Houston Ballet, I watched Watters rehearse a piece called Reflections. It was created by Justin Peck, a young choreographer at the top of his game. The music is a poignant piano duet, and the work is performed on a mostly empty stage, just the dancers and two players at their pianos. There are no princes or princesses and no elaborate costumes.

The studio was empty, save for a ballet master, the accompanist at the piano, and three dancers: a female principal, Karina González, and two male soloists, one of whom was Watters. His focus was total and self-critical, with no sign of the sly wit he adapts so often in real life. “I over-prepped it,” he said of a move, anticipating a correction from the ballet master. “I stopped too soon.”

The dancers were executing what is known as a pas de trois. González was as light on her feet as she was confident, while the two men were all sinew and muscle, twisting their bodies like bending branches in a wind perpetually changing direction. Sometimes the men came together and then pulled apart, grasping each other by the wrist. Sometimes González slipped between them, separating them for a bit before all three danced together again. Their movements went from airy to reserved to almost percussive—together, alone, together, apart—the old steps presented in new ways for new audiences who might not even notice that all three dancers were Black or Hispanic. That’s how it went for the next hour or so, until all three were drenched in sweat and panting.

About six weeks later, at the end of August, they performed Reflections flawlessly on an outdoor stage amid the sweet, cool air and rolling green hills of the Berkshires. The rave in the Boston Globe singled out Watters and González for their “surprisingly rare ‘true’ dance partnerships . . . [They move] like a flowing river, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.”

Reading the review, I thought back to the boy who staged The Nutcracker over and over again. “I felt unstoppable in my living room,” Watters had said, his eyes glowing. “I turned the lights off and used the dimmer switch on our chandelier. I was in a spotlight. I would hide behind the edge of the hallway, and that was the curtain.

“I was entering a stage,” he continued. “This was a performance. There was never anyone saying, ‘You’re gross. You’re different’ or ‘Boys can’t do that.’ It was just”—he said, pausing to recapture the Moment—“everything.”

Styled by Jen Patryn; Rainbow skirt & yellow dress: Carolina Herrera from Tootsies Houston; Crochet set: Lord Von Schmitt; Black blouse: Azzedine Alaia from Tootsies Houston

This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Can Harper Watters Make Ballet Matter Again?” Subscribe today.