Viral Ballet Dancer Harper Watters Takes Femme Expression To New Heights
Harper Watters may be best known for a viral treadmill video that PopSugar declared "proves high heels are genderless." But armed with a devoted Instagram following and YouTube channel—not to mention a strut to kill for—the Houston Ballet soloist is poised to shake up the overwhelmingly white and femmephobic world of classical dance. Photographed by Minü Han. Styling Sean Santiago. Hair and makeup Mark de los Reyes. Assistants Noah Jackson, Colin Laidley and Justin Viera. Interview text by Sean Santiago and Colin Laidley, edited and condensed for clarity. All clothing Christopher John Rogers.
Sean Santiago: How long have you been doing ballet?
Harper Watters: I say my whole life, because I think every little kid takes a ballet class at one point or another. But when I was eleven or twelve I started taking ballet class every day. I moved away from home when I was fourteen years old to go to a performing arts high school in Boston. I had been going to private school in Maine and I was the only African-American boy; at the time I thought I was the only boy who was potentially gay. I decided to come out the summer before my sophomore year of high school, really spur of the moment, and felt a really overwhelming sense of accomplishment, like this huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. But I was petrified to go back to school. I was like, “I can’t do it. I won’t fit in. I will be bullied.” I was expecting the worst, and that was really the impetus for trying to audition to go to performing arts high school. I was like, I can dance a little bit and I know that there are people like me and there are people who will support me. I will fit in there. [I was] trying to find a comfortable environment more so than pursuing a career in dance. But it spun itself into a career. I’m very lucky.
SS: Well, I guess it’s lucky you had talent. [Laughs]
HW: [Laughs] I had something to work with, you know? A lot of people think ballet is just physical. And a huge part of it is, but there’s so much more. That’s something that I’ve learned throughout my career is that you have to be able to make artistic choices. You have to bring yourself into the work and you have to make it genuine. You have to make it authentic.
SS: What has it been like over the years, as an athlete and as a performer? Have you really found yourself thriving under that pressure? Has it been really challenging?
HW: There are ranks in a ballet company; you start out very young and your workload is small and then you get more and more opportunities. And when you get those opportunities you’re like, “Okay this is my time. This is my make-or-break moment.” It sucks when you have pain and you have things that hurt, and when there are parts that maybe you’re not connecting with [emotionally]. Like, where I’m falling in love with a woman, or I’m having to express myself in a way that doesn’t lend itself to how I am as Harper, outside of ballet. And I want to make sure that I’m doing the pieces and the roles justice; I don’t want to fail or not be given more opportunities. So those moments have been really stressful. But that’s just the nature of the ballet world. It is competitive and it is high pressure. I’m very lucky that I’m in a place that supports me, and where they want me to succeed—and they want me to be Harper, rather than a cookie-cutter mold of someone else.
SS: So it feels like this particular environment is really open to kind of fostering your growth as an individual as much as, like, you as a cog in the machine?
HW: Yeah, I definitely think so. Let me tell you, I was very apprehensive to come down here. It’s Houston, Texas. I’m an African-American gay man. You know, like, the odds are not in my favor sometimes. But I was very surprised at how willing they were to allow me to express myself, both onstage and off. And I never felt like I was put into a mold or that I had to act a certain way. If anything my corrections in my rehearsals and in classes were, “Harper, make choices. Bring yourself to the piece. You don’t have to do it like other people.” I started to carry that mentality into my work and my life outside of the studio, and on social media and my YouTube channel. I was just starting to find a parallel between ballet and my personal life and Houston as a company has been incredibly supportive.
SS: You mentioned that the majority of the love stories are heterosexual, which I guess is par for the course, but do you feel like the company—and maybe the space and ballet itself—do you feel like it’s something that you're able to make queerer? Or that you bring that aspect of your identity to the table? And how does that find its expression?
HW: I do definitely think that I make a lot of my dancing like me. It’s out there. It’s flamboyant. It’s toned down for certain things, but my goal is for people to see Harper up there. I want them to see me. And that’s when I feel like my dancing is the best. A lot of my mannerisms and how I deal with my emotions, and how I deal with certain things—I don’t know how accepting people would be of seeing that on stage. But there are a number of queer male dancers who are leading dancers in other companies who I see doing Romeo and similar parts, and that’s inspiring. That makes me work harder and want to try it. I just think seeing other people do it is really important. That’s kind of a big motivation behind what I post and what I share and how I try to conduct myself in the studio for other dancers to see.
SS: It seems the stage is a very gendered space and it’s funny to think that if you’re being flamboyant or maybe your actions are coded as more feminine, it’s like…does that necessarily mean that you seem less strong? Or when you’re performing a strong character do you need to be, like, really brutish and really forceful?
HW: We just did Don Quixote and I played a character, his name is Espada, and he’s the lead matador. And our coaches kept saying, you know, “tons of cojones” and “balls forward” and “you’re a real dick.” They were like, “Whenever you go up to a woman you just want to whisper something nasty in her ear.” And I was like, that’s just not me at all. To me it just felt like they were saying it needed to be more straight. I was, like, you’re just dancing—[laughs] literally dancing—around saying, “It needs to be more masculine.” Why does it have to be this one-dimensional interaction between people? People can interact in a more nuanced way and still tell the same story. They weren't trying to be negative, I just think that that was their perception of what the ballet is. So I was like, I really take your advice and I know that as a dancer I have an obligation to maintain the standards of this ballet—but I also want to kind of tweak it a little bit and I want to push it a little bit. Because if I can’t relate to it, then I’m going to look awkward on stage and people are going to see that I’m awkward. That was a really difficult part because I just felt like I couldn’t win, despite my training. It was like I just wasn’t meant to do it for the weirdest reasons. But I ended up having a lot of fun with the role because I just made it myself. It is hard when roles like that come along that and, despite your years and years of training, there’s something else holding you back.
SS: Do you find that there’s a lot of old-fashioned thinking within ballet, since it is a more classical art form?
HW: I definitely think so. And what’s difficult is a lot of the coaches are former dancers, you know? These are people who have danced these ballets for years—thirty, forty years. And so they have their idea of what the ballet should be and they have a wealth of knowledge associated with the ballet, but they might not be as in-tune with 2018 and what’s going on now. And there are fresh new choreographers who are coming up with these one-act ballets and new interpretations that are really pushing the boundaries, but every company has to do these classic ballets. They sell so well. It’s what people associate with the ballet world. And whenever we revisit those they’re the most difficult ones for me, personally, to really tackle. Because it’s just…they’re dated. The storylines behind them are dated. I want to see stories that are current. And I think everybody wants to go to the ballet, just like they go to the movies, and they want to see themselves up there. So it’s important to kind of push that.
SS: And to reflect the culture instead of trying to reshape it in this outdated, classist image.
HW: I mean, it’s weird though. There are productions of Cinderella where men get in drag [to play] the sisters, and there are other ballets like Sleeping Beauty, where men will dress up as the evil queen or something like that. So there’s this kind of…the boundaries are sort of pushed, but they stay the same.
SS: Right, because there’s this binary. It’s like, either you’re completely in drag or you can’t be feminine at all.
HW: Exactly. Yeah, that’s exactly it. These men are having to play a woman in full makeup, eyebrows glued down, eye shadow, [the works], but then I’m not allowed to, like, raise my eyebrows in a certain way? It’s just very weird sometimes.
SS: But that’s again why you have to keep being out there and doing it. One thing I wanted to ask was: the clothes. How did you like the clothes for the shoot?
HW: Oh, I was obsessed. I loved everything. Whenever I put on my pink heels for whatever video I do, I instantly feel glam, like I can take on the world. And whenever I take the heels off I try to keep that same feeling in my dancing. And the clothing…you just put it on and it’s just like, “Look at me bitch. I’m gonna work this out.” Sometimes you have to learn how to get that feeling without the clothes, but, yeah, the clothes were everything.
SS: When did you first put on a pair of heels that gave you that feeling?
HW: Probably in high school. You just have to walk a certain way in heels—like, it’s unacceptable to look like a clunk. And there’s just a certain hip dip and chassé that comes with it. So I just had to keep doing it. I love a good pair of heels.
SS: Was the treadmill video the first really big moment of media exposure for you?
HW: Yeah. So, I feel like there’s this kind of niche community on Instagram of ballet fan pages. There are accounts that have over half a million followers simply based on posting really cool dance videos. Videos that I had been making were being shared on those kinds of pages, and so I kind of had a taste of [what happens] when a video goes viral or gets a lot of views. But the heel video is really what introduced me to everybody. That was like, “Okay, Harper, this is what a viral video is.”
SS: And you have your Youtube channel, so you’re constantly making videos and interacting with an audience, right?
HW: The YouTube channel started as something just for fun. But, what it’s turned into…like you were saying at the start, there’s a big preconceived notion about ballet and about what a ballet dancer is and what our world is. And the Pre-Show has really, kind of, turned that on its head and been like, these are people who are successful ballet dancers, who make up the ballet world. We are queer men who talk about work, love reality TV, love music, love fashion, are dirty at times. And that literally has no effect on our art form or our craft or what we present on stage.
SS: I’m just curious, are your DMs just, like, constantly popping? Is it unmanageable? Do you have an assistant for your DMs?
HW: [Laughs] I do get a lot of DMs. I do. I get a lot of pictures of...human bodies, requests, advice. But, I do get a lot of nice messages. A lot of… [Laughs] I get a lot of stuff that’s just like, “Gay.” They’re just like, “Gay.” And I’m like, you’re literally telling me something I already know. That’s not surprising to me.
SS: So they’ll just message you and say, “Gay”?
HW: Gay. That’s it.
SS: Oh. [Laughs] Oh my god. People.
HW: Right? Also, though, I will take all of the weird DMs for the amount of connections that I’ve made in through them that have given me a lot of really great friends and a lot of really fun projects. It’s a tool that I’m very appreciative of. But I will say that I feel like people that don’t respond to their DMs always see it. Every Instagrammer always looks at their DMs. No matter what. They are always looking at them.
SS: So what you’re saying is that we should just send you all the dick pics and you’ll see them no matter what.
HW: I’ll see them and then if I don’t respond, that’s a bad sign.
SS: Red flag.
HW: Red flag.
SS: Is there a good dating pool in Houston? Or is it, like, super incestuous with all the dancers?
HW: [Laughs] Um, there’s not a lot of homosexuals in our company to be honest. There’s five of us in a company of, like, sixty. But, the straights—they get it on. And it’s so funny because they’re, like, saying that we’re super dramatic and I’m like, “Girl, you don’t have anything to talk about.” Like, they need a TV show. But the dating in Houston is not that great. It’s a little one-dimensional. There’s not a lot of exciting characters. Houston is culturally diverse, but I feel like it’s culturally diverse on one level. It’s a big oil and gas city, and there are a lot of men who, like, love a salmon short and a boat shoe and a polo and sunglasses that, like, attach in the back.
Colin Laidley: Wait, really quickly, I hate to go back to this thing, but I’m just so curious. So there are like five gay people in your company of like sixty. But like aren’t there like so many gay kids that go into dance because it’s like, “Oh, it’s creative and it’s, like, a safe space for me.” Like, where do those kids go? Why don’t they end up in companies?
HW: I feel like one of the issues is just that Houston Ballet doesn’t have a lot of gay people. There are tons in other companies that I know of. The majority of them are men and a lot of them end up in Europe.
SS: [Laugh] All those gays in Europe.
HW: But, like, San Francisco Ballet, they have a lot. New York City Ballet. But I don’t know why or how that works. When I joined the company I had four other boys who were my age in the company who were gay, and they just trickled out because it just didn’t work. Not because of a sexuality thing. I think it’s a Houston thing, honestly. There’s just not a lot of gays in our company.
SS: But I guess it’s also, like, I did gymnastics when I was a kid, but I gave up. All those things that are hobbies when you’re younger maybe, like following those through and being a professional seems like it would be much more rare. And, also, you have to be actually talented at it. Or willing to work at it.
HW: I’m interested to see in ten years who will be the leading dancers of companies. Because, you know, all the time I’m told “You need to be a principal,” or “We need more dancers of color.” And I agree, but I can’t just snap my fingers and have eight other black people come and dance with me on stage. You know? It starts when we're younger, ensuring that people from all walks of life can join and have the same opportunities so that in ten years, when they do join a company, it will be more diverse. So I’m crossing my fingers that dancers who are out and proud and look like me and are doing things like me will inspire other people to keep with it.—