UO PRIDE: HARPER WATTERSJune 19, 2017
To celebrate Pride this month, we’re sharing the stories of young creatives showing their pride and proving that love is love. We’ve partnered with GLSEN to introduce an exclusive collection of graphic tees and hats, with all profits donated to GLSEN in support of LGBTQ youth. Read more about #UOPride here.
We paid a visit to Harper Watters, Demi-Soloist at the Houston Ballet to talk about his path into the ballet world and how he thrives by being 100% himself.
Photos by Cary Fagan
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I’m currently a demi-soloist with Houston Ballet. Houston Ballet is the fourth largest classical ballet company in the US. I started dancing when I was four or five But I was probably 11 when I made it a goal of mine to have a career as a professional ballet dancer. I grew up in a town called Dover, New Hampshire. I was originally born in Atlanta, Georgia. I was adopted at two weeks old. I’m an only child. Both my parents used to be college professors. My dad is currently the state senator of New Hampshire. My mom just retired as the head of the English department at a State University. My parents are both collegiate, education-driven people. It was became kind of an issue when I made the decision to become a classical ballet dancer. Their lack of knowledge of the ballet world made them apprehensive in letting me pursue my goal, however they have been my biggest support system in making it a reality.
I went to a private school in Maine. The summer after my freshman year of high school, I came out of the closet. After I found the courage to come out to my parents and close friends, I didn’t want to return to my high school. While it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, an overwhelming sense of fear began to set in. When I returned to school, would people treat me the same way? Growing up, I was the only student of colour. Now that I was out, I convinced myself that I was “too different,” and began to create scenarios in my head of being bullied. In hindsight, I’m certain my peers would have accepted me; but at the time, the uncertainty was too much to bare. I asked my parents to let me go to performing arts school. I got in the summer of my sophomore year and went to Walnut Hill School for the Performing Arts in Massachusetts. At the advice of my teachers there, I came to Houston to audition for the summer program my junior year. I did the summer program when I was 16 years old and I was offered a job in the second company. I decided with my parents that I would leave high school my junior year and attend Houston Ballet and I joined the professional company when I was 18 years old. The rest is history.
You’re now a demi-soloist at the ballet. Can you tell us what that is and what your experience is like?
There are ranks in every ballet company. Your ranking is defined by the roles you perform and your day to day work ethic. There’s obviously the leading roles in ballet, those are most likely danced by the principle dancers or the first soloist’s.
What’s so great about Houston Ballet is we have such a diverse rep and we have so many performance opportunities that our director is able to kind of test the waters with new and upcoming dancers for one or two shows in a more featured role. That’s kind of how you gain your growth as a dancer and how you can show that you have the potential to take on more responsibility. Everybody’s path is different. There have been people who joined the company and have spent one or two years in the corp. My path was a bit longer, but around this time last year, I noticed I was being given more opportunities. I was dancing with higher ranked dancers as a member of the corp. I had to seize the moment and focus all my energy on performing and working to the best of my ability. I ended up being promoted after a performance of The Nutcracker, the ballet that inspired me to become a professional dancer.
What kind of day to day things do you do to make sure you’re prepared for those sorts of opportunities?
Being a professional dancer is a full-time job. Even when you’re not rehearsing, what you eat, how you treat your body, and what you put into your body will affect how you perform. Houston Ballet has the longest running contract in classical ballet at 44 weeks. It’s gruelling but I always try and do things to balance it out. Whether that means being with my friends or watching the Real Housewives, it’s important to take time for myself so that when I step into work I’m refreshed and in a good mindset.
You have an incredible youtube channel, with your own show, The Pre Show. How did that get started?
The Pre Show came about in a very organic way. It wasn’t like, “Okay, boys, 5,6,7,8, we are filming a show.” The process of getting ready for a ballet show is really fun. You’re in these dressing rooms and you get to be with your friends. At the time, I was in the corp with all the boys. We were just having the most outrageous conversations, and someone said, “Oh my God, could you imagine if we had put a camera there? What would people have thought if they heard us say that?” It was like, boom, light bulb, let’s do it.
I put my phone down and recorded it and I uploaded it onto YouTube. I was shocked by how many dancers were now quoting what we were saying and were letting us know that they wanted to see more. We’re a very unique group so I think the conversations were entertaining but at the same time relatable.
Do you feel like it makes classical ballet more accessible to people that might not know about the form?
I think that there is a preconceived notion of what it is to be a classical ballet dancer. I think if you were to go down and ask someone to describe a classical ballet dancer, male or female, they would have a certain image. But that doesn’t mean that my story, and the stories of other dancers can’t be told. That we can’t be heard and seen for who we are as people.
That’s my goal. To prove to people that you can be whoever you want to be. You can be what makes you happy. You can own your truth and it will have no effect on your professionalism and what you are doing, whatever it may be as your job.
Ballet allows me to internalise the power of being open and honest. I want my dancing to convey authentic emotions and for the audience to believe every intention. The only way to achieve that is to be vulnerable. Ballet requires physicality, artistry, and a high level of technique. There’s no faking it. I made the decision to come out because I couldn’t fake who I was anymore. My dancing changed the minute I was honest with who I was. I dance with confidence and no apologies. It’s special to be able to call yourself a classical ballet dancer, and even more special to happy with who you are.
In your work, and in social media, really let your personality shine through. Why are you proud to be who you are?
I’m proud of who I am. I’m 100% myself. I was scared to come out, but now I’m proud that I stand out. Standing out means you have everyones attention. With that I can show you even more of who I am and what I have to offer. When I would go to auditions and classes, I would be the only one who looks like me. I was scared, I was so different. Once I got older, I realised, “They’re already looking at me. I’d better make it so it’s worth them looking at me.”
I want to show you Harper. Now that you see me, I’m going to tell you what I have to say. I’m not the first person who’s put on heels. I’m not the first person of colour who has been a classical ballet dancer. But I think it’s important to kind of show that the colour of your skin or your sexuality doesn’t lump you into a group. That’s just one trait, now, look at my other traits and look at what else I have to offer.
Is there anyone in particular that inspired you to get into the kind of work you do?
Raymond Braun and Kyle Krieger both have motivated me to do more in my community and are big role models to me. They’re also quite entertaining on social media.
Do you have any advice for young dancers who are just getting started?
Don’t be afraid to be different. As a dancer, you have to identify your strengths because those are what make you unique. That’s the beauty of dance now. It’s not that it’s not as uniform and structured as it once was, but people want to go to the ballet and see themselves, they want to see real people.
What’s next for you?
What excites me is merging two different worlds. Merging these worlds of fashion, media, social media, that is what I want to do. I always tell people that I would love to be the Wendy Williams of the classical ballet world. I would die to have my own talk show. I want to work with photographers. The Pride Collection at UO, it seemed so fitting to be a part of this project right now. A lot of young gentlemen have reached out to me to say “Thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for showing me that it’s okay to be you. You’ve given me so much hope.” If I can build on that and if i can inspire people through what I’m doing, that’s what I will continue to do. I want to take over the world in my own way.
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