Few people GET Instagram as well as Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters—the only ballet dancer nominated in the Shorty Awards' dance category this year. The social media maestro has built a large and dedicated following with a mix of gorgeous ballet clips, striking editorial photos, funny glimpses of his behind-the-scenes life, and (of course) his signature heels videos. The throughline of his Insta posts? Authenticity. We asked Watters to share advice on how dancers can make the best use of the medium. —Margaret Fuhrer
Think Quality, Not Quantity
The idea of "quality, not quantity" is something I heard early in my training, but struggled to fully apply as a younger dancer. I desperately wanted legs as high as Zakarova's, turns like Acosta's, the masculinity of a football team made up of Disney princes.
On Instagram, that constant drive to do more meant that I was turning out heel video after heel video, not only risking the longevity of my ankles but also becoming too wrapped up in the pursuit of "going viral." I had to step back and remind myself of the "quality, not quantity" idea. Having the highest legs isn't what's important; having the most views and followers isn't what determines success. Both in order to progress through the ranks of my company and to make work that transcended the phone screen, I needed to think about the artistic value of each and every step and post.
Here's how that started to happen: A few months after my first heel video dropped, I looked at my profile grid on Instagram, and I kid you not, the first 9 most-viewed posts were me in heels, or me with my left leg in a développé or tilt. I thought to myself, yes, I am incredibly stunning, but I am so much more than that!
So I began to consciously share other aspects of my life. Maybe people want to see a clip of my rehearsal from Jorma Elo's piece? I love the way I look in this designer suit—maybe my followers would love it, too? I'm super passionate about HIV prevention and treatment—is it time to incorporate that message into my posts?
My feed became more well-rounded, and felt more authentic and balanced in its depiction of who I was. Now, I want every post to be a little seed of something I'm passionate about, so when it's shared it can grow and connect me to more people with the same intentions and interests.
One of the things I love most about Instagram is interacting with the people I follow, and using the Explore page as much as possible. By commenting on posts and sharing posts to my story, I believe I'm creating a more supportive and encouraging space. And as I share what inspires me or what I'm obsessed with at the moment, my Explore page begins to show me new accounts I might not have ever come across otherwise. It works both ways: My profile gets shown to new audiences, too. This has led to new friends, business projects, and a newfound perspective on the app.
I'm never ashamed to DM a photographer or creative and say, "Hey, would you want to collaborate?" Activists whom I've discovered on Instagram have ended up being the liaisons for major fashion campaigns. And there are real people behind each account. Creating meaningful conversation and connections with them allows us to grow and rise together.
The same thing applies in the studio, by the way. It always feels great when one of my fellow dancers is excited by the work I've done onstage, so I try to share when I've loved someone's dancing as well. And interacting with ballet masters or senior dancers has been so beneficial to the growth of my career.
By being interactive on Instagram, I've discovered new photographers, stylists, writers, advocates, directors, and (crucially) Beyoncé fan pages. By prioritizing that kind of interaction in the studio, I've discovered a new feeling of openness, which has led to a better work ethic. Create the space that you want to see and be part of.
Visibility Is Currency
As a dancer, I used to really struggle with the thought of being seen, because I had a huge fear of being identified as "different"—based on my skin tone, sexuality, or my not-so-great feet. On Instagram, that same fear meant that I was afraid to branch away from posts I felt wouldn't be popular. In both cases, what I lacked was the confidence to be vulnerable in a highly visible way. And developing that confidence is critical to success, both in the studio and on Instagram.
Ultimately, the key to overcoming my anxiety about visibility was balance. I think some people believe that all I do is run around the Houston Ballet studios in heels with Beyoncé blasting, and while that would be a fantasy, the reality is I pre-film a lot of that kind of content, and then drop it in my feed a bit at a time, between rehearsal and performance shots, or posts about advocacy work. I learned that when a heel video goes viral, I should next do a post highlighting my work as a classical dancer.
There are also endless ways to infuse humor, wit, and pop culture references into content that has deeper value. Say, for example, that I just saw Houston Ballet shared a picture from my opening night show of Sleeping Beauty. Maybe I'll edit a video using a song that is trending, post it, and then on the backend share the Sleeping Beauty photo with info on performances. It's still promoting solid core content, but in an engaging way that will grow my audience and connect me to even more people.