Between strutting on the treadmill in baby pink heels, training and rehearsing as a demi-soloist with the Houston Ballet, filming his web series, The Pre-Show, and dedicating his life to staying true to himself and the world around him, Harper Watters is a light of inspiration and change in this world.
In this Interview, I talk with Watters about life and dance in relation to diversity, action and overall identity. Harper’s identity shines through in the way in which he expresses himself — a confidence we should all aspire to: living authentically and understanding our truth gives us power and a sense of belonging in all that we do. Though one may think an understanding of identity and doing what you love in the everyday may only benefit you, it has the potential to influentially change the world.
JI: First of all, I just want to you to speak a little on your background, growing up, and how you got to where you are today.
HW: I was originally born in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was adopted at two weeks old to a caucasian family in New Hampshire as an only child. Both of my parents at the time were professors (English professors to be exact), and my mom was a children’s literature teacher as well. I was put into dance at a very young age; I was a constant mover – just a local dance academy, it wasn’t anything super regimented, just 2-3 times a week. I then went to private school in Maine, which was about a twenty minute drive from where I lived in New Hampshire. Thankfully, the arts and dance were offered at that school, so I did movement classes there, and that’s really where an interest in dance started — I was like, ‘okay, I enjoy how the music makes me feel, being around people, learning new choreography,” but I was still wearing things like basketball shorts, boxers and over sized shirts…it wasn’t like I was this renowned dancer. It was my freshman year at that high school that I personally knew that I was gay; I came to terms with that myself, you know — I was done with being like, ‘I like Brooke,’ or ‘I like Ashley” — that wasn’t a thing anymore, it was just something that I knew I was growing into. The summer before my sophomore year, all those emotions were really building up, and I decided to sit my parents down to tell them — it wasn’t like I woke up that day and was like, ‘today’s the day,’ it just felt right to say something. I sat them to tell them, and they accepted me fully [but] I remember going upstairs after, and starting to create scenarios in my head of, ‘I can’t go back to school, it’ll be miserable — I don’t fit in.”…I begged my parents to let me audition for the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and was accepted for my sophomore year of high school…Then, the summer before my senior year of high school, at the advice of my teachers, I auditioned for Houston Ballet where I got into the summer program, and that summer I was given a contract into the second company, but I had already planned to return for my senior year at Walnut Hill. That was a real, ‘what are you going to do with your life’ kind of conversation with my parents…At the time they were obviously and understandably hesitant of me doing this, and I took this as them holding me back, but it was just a lack of knowledge. No one really knows what it means to be a classical dancer or a professional dancer, and I didn’t really even at the time. What I did know is that I saw dancers at the Houston Ballet and said ‘I need to do that, I can do that if I put in the work,” and my parents saw it as well. I left Walnut Hill and joined the second company of Houston Ballet in 2009, and then in 2011, I was offered a contract with the main company, and in 2016, I was promoted to Demi-Soloist, which is the rank that I’m at now.
The art form of dance isn’t overnight – I can’t press enter into a keyboard, there’s no formula that solves the issue of how to get my leg up and make it look pretty – it’s time.
JI: Obviously, as part of your identity, no matter how much you identify with it or not – you are an African-American dancer, and you are an openly gay dancer – although ballet is a lot more diverse now than even a decade ago, have you seen this part of your identity influence your career, and even your everyday life?
HW: I think that it’s a difficult conversation to have because dance is an elite art form. At the end of the day, the dancers who step on that stage have to execute the movement at a certain quality that’s required, and you don’t want to put certain people up there to fill a quota, you know? So, what I tell people is this: does ballet need to be more diverse? Yes, one hundred percent, but that can’t be from just putting anyone up on stage, it has to come from a much younger age. It starts with having more accessibility for ballet in places that don’t have it. So, what I’m trying to do with my platform and how I live my life is to prove that it’s possible, and gain as much visibility as possible so that people can see me, and find relatable qualities that I’ve set – whether it be my sexuality, whether it be my skin color, whether it be my gender, whether it be where I’m from, whether it be how I go about my life – that there are some qualities that people can see and be like, “I identify with that.” It’s definitely something that I embrace, but I’ve tried to use it to my advantage. A lot of times, when you’re younger, you see it as a negative, but in reality, you stick out for a reason, and if they’re watching you, you better make sure that they keep watching you. So yeah, I’m an African-American, gay, male ballet dancer, and when I was auditioning, choreographers come into my company, and I know that I stand out; good, because I work my butt off to be where I am and do what I do, so I’m going to make you continue to watch me.
You stick out for a reason, and if they’re watching you, you better make sure that they keep watching you.
JI: What do you have for advice for younger generations of dancers and people who are growing up in a political climate that isn’t necessarily welcoming of many different identities?
HW: My advice would be that there is such power in expressing yourself and living in your truth. I’m an openly gay, African-American ballet dancer, who has accepted myself fully and has turned my hard work that I put into ballet into many different opportunities: working with brands and dance companies because of being who I am, and that attracted and interested people from all around the world in what I was doing, simply by being myself. When you express yourself fully, and when you embrace yourself 110%, like I was saying, the possibilities are endless. You know, I strut on the treadmill in pink heels, but I’m a working professional ballet dancer, and I’ve worked with Urban Outfitters, and I’ve done photo shoots with professional photographers, but that’s because I did things that made me happy and embraced myself: I was Harper up there, I wasn’t trying to be anyone else. There’s a real power in being who you are, and I fully know that when people see certain animosity towards people that look like them and believe what they believe, it’s super difficult. Even with bullying in school, it’s very difficult to say, ‘in ten years, this won’t mean anything,’ or ignore it, because at that age, it holds more weight than it really actually should. But to keep a clear point of view, surround yourself with people who support you, and who you feel you can flourish with – community is so important. You have a voice, whether it be a verbal voice, or your actions are your voice, I think that knowing the power of yourself is a really powerful thing, and I don’t think that people think that one person matters, or that they can have an effect, but they do, and it will have an effect.
JI: How is it that embracing your individuality has lead to success in many avenues for you – contracts, a large social media following, being able to do what you love – even if it may just be confidence that’s your greatest success?
HW: My social media presence is a direct relation to who I am as a person; nothing I post on any of my accounts is forced, it’s all an extension of who I am and what makes me happy and what I like to surround myself with. Four years ago when, I started posting dance videos of me running on a treadmill, I never would have imagined that it would turn into what I’m doing now, and I think that’s a testament to doing what you love and what makes you happy – what it can actually do for you. But, my confidence and who I am has a person has definitely been affected by my social media presence: it’s taught me how to take criticism, it’s taught me how to deal with negativity; but it’s also motivated me to keep on doing what I’m doing because I have received messages of inspiration and admiration. I’m privileged to be in a position where I can continue on, especially where Hurricane Harvey had a deep impact on our company – our stage was damaged and won’t be reopened for a year, so we’ve been having to scramble with shows and putting on rehearsals, and people still made it out to the ballet saying that they’ve lost everything and that art and coming to the ballet has taken their mind off of the devastation. Hearing that and knowing that is why I do it, that’s why we all do it. My social media presence and what I do on Instagram, at face value is like, ‘oh it’s just flamboyant,’ ‘oh it’s just gay,’ ‘oh it’s just fun,’ and it is! But there’s an underlying message of there’s power in being yourself and bringing joy to other people.
JI: Lastly, you talked about how after the Hurricane and the devastating loss it’s caused, how everyone still came together for the ballet. How do you think art and dance can unite people and create community?
HW: For that exact reason, you know – art, for everybody, I hope, is a way of expression and is a way of expressing yourself. It’s a beautiful thing for people to take what they feel internally and do something with it, and uniting people through emotions like that is a very powerful thing, and I think that learning what people connect to and why they connect to certain things, and having conversations of, ‘how did you connect to this,’ and, ‘how did you respond to this,’ or, ‘why did you respond to this,’ those are the types of conversations we have to have, not only in an art form based scenario, but in our political climate that’s going on right now, and with everything that’s going on. How can you relate to this, and what quality, or what unifying bit of information do we have so we can find a common ground in moving forward and getting out of this rut that we’re in. On a more simple level, you want to be transported: ballet and dance, it’s a story and for that brief hour and a half you’re at the ballet, you should feel like you’re whisked away to a whole other world. Or if you’re looking at a portrait, or a painting, or are at a play, these moments out of your current thought process, hopefully creates inspiration for people to think a different way, or maybe act a different way, and that’s what is important about dance and art, and that’s why it’s important for people to create, and keep creating, and keep thinking and moving forward. There are also certain pieces of art that are timeless, and why is it timeless, why is this message important, and why is it still relevant – just having thoughts and conversations like that – art does that. Art is a very, very powerful thing.
Just as certain pieces of art are timeless, so is the knowledge of identity. As time goes on, staying true to ourselves in order to find an inherent self-expression is of utmost importance; I was reminded of this during my conversation with Watters. Through his social media presence, which he describes as “simply an extension of who he is,” career, and in what he preaches, Watters finds space to use what he loves in order to inspire others and change the world in every way he can, even if it’s in the details. In this, I encourage you to take what Watters has said and ask yourself this question: how can you live more authentically?