Harper Watters (photo by Jayme Thornton)

How to Be an Instagram Dance Goddess

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.

Be Interactive

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.


Latest Posts


Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search