Harper Watters. Photo by Jordan Matter.
Social media is transparent, immediate, and it evolves rapidly.
Ballet has at times in its history seemed mysterious, remote, and stagnant. But not today.
Today, ballet is using the transparency and immediacy of social media to reinvent its image and Houston Ballet and its dancers are proving they know how to innovate. The company has been on top of the social Internet trend for several years, incorporating blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and most recently, Instagram as part of their marketing strategy.
Instagram, for the uninitiated, is a mobile-sharing app that enables its users to take and share photos and short videos with their followers and on other social networks. Launched in 2010, the visually-driven Instagram has amassed over 300 million active users, surpassing its second-degree kin, Twitter, a text-based, micro-blogging platform launched in 2006.
Why Instagram? According to Elizabeth Cleveland, Marketing Manager of Houston Ballet, it’s about access.
“Access to our dancers backstage and in rehearsals. Giving people a non-traditional perspective, especially in a field like classical ballet, opens doors to new audiences who may otherwise know nothing about what we do; it paints a more intimate picture.”
Houston Ballet and its dancers have been developing a significant presence on Instagram. While dancers of every rank can be found and followed there, a few of Houston Ballet’s corps members are leading the charge as the company takes the hashtag-happy platform by storm.
Off-stage pals, Harper Watters and Natalie Varnum are standouts online as well as on stage. Both share an enthusiastic fondness for social media, particularly Instagram, and its potential for marketing ballet to a wider audience. According to the pair, its benefits include bringing together fans of dance from all over the world for a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into the production of ballet.
“It is now a vital marketing tool, that can help promote performances, deals, and events. Plus, it’s also fun seeing the crazy tricks and abilities dancers possess all around the world,” muses Watters. “Ballet dancers naturally produce strong, captivating content because of the nature of who they are and what they do,” echoes Cleveland. “They have unique talent and flawless physiques that make them stick out everywhere they go.” Showcasing dancers’ exceptional qualities is a benefit that Cleveland describes as “spreading awareness about who the dancers are day to day, not just who they are onstage.” However, against the sometimes extreme portrayals we see of dancers in movies or television commercials, social media also gives audiences access to the more ordinary qualities of dancers, to which anyone could relate. “Through social media,” explains Varnum, “we can show that dancers are pretty normal. We live normal lives and have other hobbies and interests outside of dance.” Instagram in particular makes it easy for any or every dancer to quickly create and direct their own moments in a visually appealing way, making it a powerful marketing tool. “Currently,” Cleveland reveals, “we are working on streamlining how we manage so much rich content – which is a happy problem to have.”
Visit Varnum’s Instagram feed (@natisacoolkid) and you’ll find the expected: photos of costumed dancers backstage, studio footage, and coffee-shop meetups with friends. However, you’ll also find poised and classy images of the doe-eyed, strawberry blonde that show whimsical fashion sense.
“I’ve always loved fashion since an early age,” she says. “It definitely comes from my mom and big sister. We would always have the best time thrifting and recreating an expensive look with vintage finds.”
In addition to Instagram, Varnum expresses her fashion passion on a blog, The Jewelry Box Ballerina. Similar to Instagram, the blog is an outlet to share outfits, thrift finds, and her adventures around Houston. For now, it’s just a fun hobby but she remains open to the possibility that it could someday be more.
“I’ve never designed but maybe in the future,” Varnum exclaims. “It’s so exciting to see these high fashion designers collaborating with dancers. That’s a dream of mine.” Dancers, more than ever, are thinking about careers pursued after or even simultaneously with their work as performance professionals. Turning alternative interests and obsessions into viable careers is necessary preparation for changes that extend unpredictably close or far into the future within such a risky field.
For Watters (@theharperwatters), social media itself has blossomed into a potential career path. A year ago, with the help of some other dancers in the company and Houston Ballet’s PR & Marketing team, he took over the Houston Ballet Instagram account.
“I am currently the Social Media Advisor for Houston Ballet, meeting weekly with PR & Marketing about promoting the company through social media,” Watters announces. “It’s been such a positive learning experience to see the business aspect of this organization and has definitely sparked my interest in exploring a career that incorporates social media.”
It may sound surprising that a large dance organization like Houston Ballet would filter the content of one of its channels through a company member, however, Watters is quick to praise the system of support provided for dancers at Houston Ballet and the company management’s willingness to try new things. Plus, it’s working.
“In our partnership, we have amassed 37,000 [followers] and counting in a little over a year on Instagram,” says Watters. “I can’t wait to see the growth of this partnership and what the future holds.”
Outgoing online and off, Watters is developing a personal brand of his own. He has done some guest blogging, was photographed by Jordan Matter for his Dancers Among Us series, and he’s established a presence on SnapChat, Vine, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, in addition to his “main squeeze,” Instagram. But, if you think being a social butterfly is all that the gregarious Watters aspires to, you’d be mistaken.
“I actually have a talk show in the works, Beyoncé’s team just contacted me about dancing on her next tour, and I’m meeting with Anna Wintour and the people of US Weekly about developing a dance/gossip magazine,” lists Watters. “But shh, don’t tell anyone.”
Mum’s the word.
Watters, Misty Copeland; these are perfect examples of dancers promoting the art of ballet but also taking the reigns and, as Aretha might belt, “doin’ it for themselves.” On New Year’s Eve 2015, as I scrolled through my Instagram feed (as one does on NYE), two pairs of pretty pink heels pecked along a treadmill to the Fergalicious hook, “I be up in the gym, just working on my fitness.” Inside the stilettos were Watters and fellow dancer, Rhys Kosakowski (@rhyskawasaki). Adorable. From there I probably moved on, as one does, to a heavily-filtered candid of someone’s cat, or dinner, or the cat’s dinner, but just a few weeks later, the short clip crossed my social stream via those unconnected to Houston Ballet. The video, featuring Watters’ fierce leg tilt, had gone viral after being picked up by a few social buzz websites. Seizing the moment, these ballet boys stepped out with a sassier follow-up that even Yanis Marshall would appreciate.
Though Watters and his fellow dance buds share photos and video of all kinds, undeniably, the success of his heel-clad videos has raised Watters’ own follower count and likely his overall profile as a dancer.
I know you’ll be shocked that not all the attention bestowed via social media is positive, however.
“What started out as a joke has turned into people writing, telling me I am a disgrace to all men in dance to the flip-side of people saying, ‘Your ability to do what you want with no cares is inspiring.’”
Varnum too says that the weirdest thing about social media is the baffling practice by some users of posting mean comments.
“I’ve gotten some pretty harsh criticism before,” she contests.
Such negativity, concludes Watters, can be particularly hard for dancers.
“We’re already so hard on ourselves to begin with, the last thing we need is someone else adding to that.”
The response, both positive and negative, has been overwhelming but not deterring, according to Watters.
“In the end, life’s too short to worry about what people think, and I will continue to post things that let people know it is OK to embrace yourself and do what makes you happy.”
It’s this reactive nature of the Internet that can make social marketing a risky endeavor for brands of all kinds. With at least one high-profile case where a dancer in a large ballet company (not Houston Ballet) went ‘off the rails’ in terms of social sharing, there’s a case for proceeding with some level of caution when engaging online.
“Houston Ballet has been very fortunate,” says Cleveland. “There has been no need for strict policies because the professionalism of our dancers is unquestionable. They have a strong understanding of the integrity of what we do and how Instagram is an effective channel for us. Nevertheless, a professional ballet company is a business, with much at stake. Common sense and asking the question: does this content add value, or put our values in jeopardy? While I think everyone should explore their own personal brands, there is a fine line when it comes to contributing to the brand of a business – not to mention the brand that puts food on your table.”
Watters says he’s never had a problem staying within his employers’ guidelines. Again, he mentions the support the dancers receive from Houston Ballet as well as his responsibility upon being entrusted with the freedom to explore and share.
“The dancers using social media are all well aware of the image and standards we have to maintain when using social media because we are representing the ballet.”
For most dancers, maintaining these standards is a matter of understanding that once something is posted online, you can’t take it back.
“I post things that wouldn’t embarrass anybody and make my parents proud hopefully,” says Varnum. “I have a lot of young followers and I would never want to do anything to offend them.”
Watters is careful to differentiate between his public and private persona.
“The content on my Instagram is all about what I like to do, what I’m obsessed with at the moment, what I find funny, what I am doing with my friends. I stay true to what I like, rarely do I post what I think,” explains Watters. “You will never get my opinion on politics, news, or current events unless it concerns Beyoncé or my dad, who is a senator. Besides Facebook, where my friends are people who I’ve met and had relationships with throughout the years, I don’t feel like my social media is the appropriate place for those types of discussions. I feel much more comfortable with my leg above my head and Beyoncé on my shirt than sharing my thoughts on the 2016 election.”
Since social media success can appear tangible, it may be tempting for dancers at any level of their training or career to put too much on display in order to #BreaktheInternet and watch their follower counts and number of “likes” rise.
Watters admits he’s guilty of getting wrapped up in the numbers of social media.
“This leads to posting for all the wrong reasons,” he observes. “When I focus on the content and share what I enjoy, I am always pleasantly surprised at the response. It’s much more rewarding to accumulate followers who genuinely share my interests, than forcing a post that isn’t true to who I am.”
The greatest moments, according to Watters, are when his posts or videos have been a source of inspiration for someone to work harder in class or feel more comfortable about embracing who they are.
“Knowing that what you do is positively affecting someone is incredibly validating,” he remarks.
Houston Ballet #DancersofInstagram
- Derek Dunn (Corps)
- Joel Woellner (Corps)
- Rhys Kosakowski (Corps)
- Shahar Dori (Corps)
- Hayden Stark (Corps)
- Brian Waldrep (Corps)
- Aaron Sharratt (Corps)
- Chun Wai Chan (Corps)
- Jim Nowakowski (Demi Soloist)
- James Gotesky (Soloist)
- Nozomi Iijima (Soloist)
- Connor Walsh (Principal)
- Yuriko Kajiya (Principal)
- Melody Mennite (Principal)
REPRINTED FROM DANCE ADVANTAGE.