A self-described Queen Bee and soloist at the Houston Ballet, Harper Watters is the moment. He has been a part of campaigns for Ralph Lauren and MAC Cosmetics, most recently Abercrombie & Fitch, while juggling busy days of dance rehearsals and performances. I had the chance to talk with the Short Nominated dancer about what it means to be part of one of the most respected dance companies in the country, how dance has helped him live his dreams, his thoughts on the Real Housewives franchise and more.
Hi, Harper! You joined the Houston Ballet in 2011 and in 2017 were promoted to a soloist. What has been the biggest challenge in your career so far?
I think the biggest challenge was when I did join in 2011, I was 18 and I really thought that I had made it. I was like “I’m the best dancer ever.” I thought that this was it, I thought the roles would start coming really fast. I was super focused on becoming friends with the older dancers and trying to get my way into the social life of it all because I had looked up to these dancers growing up.
I did two years in the school, [Houston Ballet], before I joined the company. I was quickly surprised and realized that I had a lot of work to continue to do. Once I got over my complacency, I had to find ways that separated myself from the other dancers to get roles and opportunities. When you’re in the core—within the company there are a lot of ranks, and the core is the largest group and you spend a lot of time at that rank, and anyone is talented, anyone can get their leg up, anyone can do the trick—you have to find ways, beside the physical kind of feats of the art form, to stand out. For me that was bringing myself into the work and accepting who I was as Harper and not trying to be anyone else.
I found inspiration from other dancers and other people at the company, it was when I started becoming myself and playing with the music and thinking of what I had to say with the steps, not just doing the steps, and I still struggle with that. But that was probably the hardest part, getting over the initial shock of the work. The work continues once you’ve made it and then how do you work smart enough to separate yourselves from others because you know, dance isn’t just something you type in an equation and the results come out from. So learning that, especially in Houston with the LGBTQ and African American diversity resurgence that’s happening right now, it was difficult, but I’m seeing the results.
Speaking about inspiration, I know you’ve mentioned in past interviews that you draw inspiration from RuPaul’s Drag Race and America’s Next Top Model, specifically J. Alexander. From where else or whom else do you draw inspiration from?
I’m a big pop culture reference fan and thought I had to suppress what interested me in order to succeed and be happy, but it was really embracing all of that. When you feel good and are feeling your best, you’re able to be your best. Beyoncé is 100% an inspiration and people like Wendy Williams and the Real Housewives. It’s entertainment but it’s funny with Wendy Williams, she is so controversial and she’s so iconic in her memes that she probably doesn’t think she’s making at the time, with her I’m so intrigued with how she is one person for twenty minutes on live air, holding your attention with however long her show has run. I’m interested in how people hold people’s attention. What are they doing that makes them return to watch them?
As a classical ballet dancer, in an art form that is antiquated but also doesn’t get the visibility and popularity that actors have, or even Broadway performers in Broadway musicals being turned into blockbuster films. I try to look at it from a pop culture reference and how I can incorporate what is popular and what is current into ballet. I pull inspiration from that. That helps me gain the confidence to try new things in the studio and to embrace acting and characters and I pull from that. It’s kind of great timing that it’s Black History Month, I’m inspired now that I am 28 years-old and looking back at the history of African Americans in the dance world and seeing the roles that they have danced, people like Arthur Mitchell and Albert Evans and Alvin Ailey, seeing their pieces on YouTube, that is inspiring to me as well. So it’s definitely a healthy balance of hipster-y and ratchet.
I love that answer. And just randomly which Real Housewives franchise are you a fan of?
I’m OG, I started with season one of [The Real Housewives of Orange County] with Vicki [Gunvalson], that’s why it’s been really hard to hear that she’s been fired. But I’m loyal to watching all of them. I think that [The Real Housewives of Dallas] is not my favorite anymore, it really didn’t hit. [The Real Housewives of Potomac] has gotten better. I think that [The Real Housewives of Atlanta] girls have let celebrity get to them too much, it’s still great. But if I were to pick what my favorite season is in the past two years it has to be The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Those ladies are killing it.
I’m a big RHONJ fan myself.
Being a reality TV lover, yes, of course it’s heavily produced and I believe producers and people play into what makes it work. But the brilliance of those reality TV shows is in those early stages, those moments happened out of those people being themselves and they weren’t famous, they didn’t know what they were a part of and so that’s why those early seasons are really iconic. I feel like the Jersey girls, especially this season, they feel like real people. NeNe [Leakes] is like a celebrity, and Portia [Williams] and Kandi [Burruss] they’re not real housewives, they’re real celebrities. I should do a Real Housewives review podcast.
I’m very honored to be a part of that, especially a queer person of color, having a real voice and visibility along with the company. It means a lot to be a part of it but also it means even more to me that they are supportive of me and what I’m doing.
To be a part of the Houston Ballet which is one of the largest and most well-known dance companies in the country, what does it mean to you to be able to represent them?
It’s a big deal. Growing up and being a ballet dancer, first of all, I went to a performing art high school, not in the hopes of becoming a dancer but because I had came out and I didn’t want to go back to my private school because I was petrified that I was going to be bullied or not fit in. In hindsight, I would’ve had a support system, but my choice to leave and go to performing arts high school was in search of community, so that’s where my love of dance really started. But I never thought that I could be a classical ballet dancer. I felt that I had to go to Alvin Ailey [American Dance Theater] where I filled out the African American standard, and I thought it had to be a modern dance. I didn’t even know that you could have a full time career as a ballet dancer. To have that now as my job, Houston Ballet has the longest contract in classical ballet, forty-four weeks and that’s not including touring, you know it’s a real privilege. I’m getting paid to do what I love to do, and I have to remind myself that when the lower back hurts, when I’m tired or when I’m kind of over it. It’s our 50th anniversary season, so 50 years of this company thriving in Texas, you never would think that this art community would be able to flourish in a place like the south. I’m very honored to be a part of that, especially a queer person of color, having a real voice and visibility along with the company. It means a lot to be a part of it but also it means even more to me that they are supportive of me and what I’m doing.
My dancing has allowed me to be the person I want to be and the person I want to be has a lot more dancing to become better. Overcoming the bullies and the haters and the nay-sayers, and the ignorant people, those people have allowed me to be better. I’m louder, I’m more flamboyant, I’m more confident, I really stepped into who I am because of that. I want my dancing and my art to be the best that it could be and that relies on me being the best version of myself.
Last year you wrote an op-ed for Teen Vogue and talked about how dancing became your way of overcoming the bullying you experienced, having now put years into your career, how has that expression of dance changed for you?
Dance is…you know I feel like I had to hide that I was a dancer and that inside of the studio I was Harper. I would look forward so much to dance because I just wasn’t myself out of the studio. At school, in public, I would just turn down the volume on who I was and on what Harper meant and the volume would get turned up in the studio. Like I said at the start, my dancing became better when I turned the volume up on Harper all the time. My dancing has allowed me to be the person I want to be and the person I want to be has a lot more dancing to become better. Overcoming the bullies and the haters and the nay-sayers, and the ignorant people, those people have allowed me to be better. I’m louder, I’m more flamboyant, I’m more confident, I really stepped into who I am because of that. I want my dancing and my art to be the best that it could be and that relies on me being the best version of myself. That’s why it means so much to me. It’s funny because I feel like because of Facebook I’m able to see all these people who bullied me or were just mean to me. It’s really nice to share all my successes in a public platform because success is so much sweeter when you’ve done it staying true to yourself and not succumbing to peer pressure or anything.
What words of advice do you have for the kids who are experiencing bullying the way you and I and so many others have experienced growing up?
It’s easier said than done. You know, ignore them and they’re really not going to be a factor in your life really in due time, but what I would say is, trust what makes you happy, believe in what excites you and don’t ever do it to please others. Always do things to give joy to yourself, and to know that there are always people who are there to support you and uplift you, whether it be a teacher or another student. In dance we have this saying, quality over quantity. You don’t just want to do eight turns and it looks terrible, three turns are great if they look beautiful and clean. I think that when you’re a child it’s easy to get wrapped up in wanting the quantity of a lot of popular friends or to please people and pleasing all of these opinions, but quality of life and quality of who you are around is much more important.
I did a competition here in Houston in 2015 which was around that time I had that lightbulb moment where I needed to be more myself. I think I was four years into the company at that point, and I had to record a video of me dancing live in one take, and I needed to rehearse and practice it before I filmed it. So I was doing that and fell out of a turn and my boss was in front of me, I thought he was going to tear me apart but he looked at me and said “you’re never going to ride the perfect wave, it’s about riding the waves you’re given.” And that mentality of, you’re never going to please everybody you know—it’s never going to be perfect. So you might as well just do it how you want to do it and it will be just so much better that way. And if you’re saying something with what you’re doing and if you believe in what you’re doing, even if you make mistakes, it will be better in the long run.
This past year you were a part of campaigns for Ralph Lauren and MAC Cosmetics, what has that experience been like to have worked for big name brands such as those?
It’s wild. It’s really wild. I don’t know if you remember the MTV show Punk’d, but I really thought I was being punk’d, I thought it was fake news and I just couldn’t even believe it, especially because I am a ballet dancer and this isn’t what I do full time. I’m in the studio, I get to work at 9:15AM to work-out and warm up for class, I do an hour and a half of ballet class every day, I rehearse for 6 hours for the Sleeping Beauty world premiere, Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet. That is where my attention is, I just happen to share it on a platform like Instagram.
To see people respond to it in a way that makes brands take note really makes me feel great. I grew up loving J. Alexander on America’s Next Top Model so I feel like I’m Tyra Banks. I feel like I’m winning, but it just feels really good. Going back to the quality not quantity, it’s really easy to get wrapped up in “I need all the followers,” “I want all the numbers,” “I want all the likes.” But what I’ve learned from working with Ralph Lauren and MAC is brands at that level are much more intrigued by the community you built and the community of people who you represent. Ralph Lauren isn’t about how many millions of followers you have and that’s what I respect. I look into every moral of a company before I say yes to working with them for many reasons, but especially because I want them to know who I am, I don’t want to fill a quota, I don’t want to be the token gay, I don’t want to be token black person. I want to be Harper up there. So it’s been really exciting. I’m really grateful that my boss lets me miss work to fly out to New York for these shoots. I stay in hotels, I feel like a Gigi Hadid, like I’m a model, it’s really exciting. I have a campaign with Abercrombie & Fitch coming out which is mind-blowing to me. I walked into Abercrombie & Fitch as a kid and I saw that I was being stared at for being African American. You look up at the beefy muscle men and you’re like “I will never ever be that.” But now to be that with a brand, who has changed its whole perception, it’s really rewarding. And I’m really proud of what I have done as a ballet dancer, it was never my intention to do this but I’m more than happy stepping into the role.
I’m trying to get younger boys and younger girls interested in the dance to step into the studio, whether they continue it or not is totally up to the environment and the people who affect their lives. I’m hopeful that there will be more variety and diversity in the ballet world. But you can already see that the next generation of kids and teenagers and people are more vocal. Not to mention, coming out is happening a lot more publicly and kids are being active in the initiatives that they believe in.
Representation for people of color and queer people has been, in these past years, more and more vocal, what are your thoughts on the current representation of queer people of color specifically in your industry, dance?
I think that it could always be more. I think that across the board for everything. But when it gets to something like ballet or let’s say a highly skilled profession, it still has to be about the quality of work that you’re doing. At the end of the day you can’t just put anybody up on stage to fill a quota or to be that person for the wrong reasons. And oftentimes when I’m asked, “Harper why are you not doing the Prince in Sleeping Beauty?” Well, because I’m not ready to do it technically, and my skin color shouldn’t be the reason I’m up there doing it. But I will say it does motivate me to work harder so I can do it as an African American. So, the work I’m doing now is so that in a few years, when you look on stage, the faces are more colorful and more diverse, racially and ethnically. I’m trying to get younger boys and younger girls interested in the dance to step into the studio, whether they continue it or not is totally up to the environment and the people who affect their lives. I’m hopeful that there will be more variety and diversity in the ballet world. But you can already see that the next generation of kids and teenagers and people are more vocal. Not to mention, coming out is happening a lot more publicly and kids are being active in the initiatives that they believe in. I think that will carry into their professions when it comes time to make choices related to that. I believe in the work that, not just myself, but others are doing to create a more colorful future for others.
You are nominated for a Shorty Award, congrats on that, in their Dance category. If you were to win, who would you mention in your acceptance speech?
Who would I mention? Oh my gosh, I would have to mention my parents. I would not be here without them. They are my biggest cheerleaders. They are the reason I am a dancer. Putting me in the classes, driving me every day and supporting me and they are the people that created the environment that allowed me to make mistakes, be vulnerable, be my best, so I would have to thank them. I would thank the Shorty Awards because I’m the only ballet dancer in my category who isn’t a commercial dancer, who isn’t making memes as my content. And that’s not to say that that’s not valid, I just think that the other nominees’ line of dancing and the line of work they are in is much more appreciated in a mainstream world. And I believe that ballet deserves a seat at the table, and by being nominated it’s saying to young boys and young dancers that ballet is cool, ballet is fun, and ballet deserves to be recognized. You can make a career out of it. So I would thank the Shorty Awards, I would thank Beyoncé for being my inspiration. I would thank the dancers at Houston Ballet because I’m a lot and they have a lot of patience for the shenanigans that I do. Parents, Shorty Awards, Beyoncé, Houston Ballet—in no particular, parents first.
Our upcoming issue’s theme is “joy”. How do you define joy?
Oh. That’s a really good question. I would think joy is an overwhelming sense of the feeling that could probably be described as “I am so effing happy right now and I’m able to ignore the thoughts and perceptions and preconceived notions of others because what I’m doing brings me so much confidence.” It’s almost indescribable, but I would tell you that I have experienced joy when I accomplish something that I want, or I see something that inspires me. But that’s a really good question. I immediately think of Marie Kondo in [Tidying Up with Marie Kondo] she always asks “does this spark joy?” and if it doesn’t you kind of have to get rid of it. But if you have an emotional connection, you should keep it. So I always think of that when I’m doing a project or if I’m doing something at work or if I’m listening to my friends talk and it’s like drama, like if it sparks joy in you or if you feel something that means you should listen to it.
this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
interview conducted by Andy Lopez in February 2020
photo credit in order: luke austin for teen vogue, minu for cakeboy magazine, ralph lauren polo pride capsule collection campaign