This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 19th of September 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
Harper is known for being proudly and unapologetically himself, this is captured so clearly in an incredible fun video that went viral, capturing Harper in heels on a treadmill. This interview was such a pleasure and lots of fun. The interview covers a range of issues from gender, sexuality, social media, self-acceptance, the changing space of dance and what the future holds. The episode itself sat within a season that explores the different ways people understand and use dance to challenge normative assumptions and ideas.
Transcripts are a new initiative of Delving into Dance, seeking to make the rich audio archive more accessiable to deaf audiances and for educators. These transcripts are paid for through the support of audiences and supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria. It would be wonderful to have your contribute to this initative, You can contribure here.
The interview stated by asking Harper where did dance start? 1:54
Harper Watters: Was something that my parents put me in, I was a constant mover, tons of energy always needed to be the center of attention. And so I was put into classes, I feel like to like, make me calm down. And my parents at the time, they're both retired. But they were both English professors. So college English teachers, and I feel like they had a real understanding of the arts and the importance of the arts and what that could do for a child. And so I mean, I did like T ball and I did all that stuff, but dance, they also put me in dance. So it was like a real like energy kind of dimmer, and they wanted me to, like, chill out, but it quickly turned into a place where I just felt accepted, you know, and I developed a lot of friendships there with people who like the same things as me and wanted to talk about the same things as me. And I didn't find that in my grades. Or in my classes at school, I didn't really have many friends that I would like, do sleep overs with, and stuff. But these girls I connected with, so it was something I wanted to be around more.
So while I loved dancing when I got started, it was much more about I need to be around these girls because these are my friends and less about I want to be a dancer. So I mean, I was put into those classes at like, age, like six, seven because I was like, insane as a child with like, tons of energy. But I usually tell people that I started dancing regularly every day with the hopes of kind of dance as a potential career. And probably like, around 11 years old. I went to a competition dance studio, we would do competitions at every weekend, we would learn the teens throughout the week. And I loved it because I was the only boy and I was like, in the center of every piece. And, but like there were girls who are taller than me. So I didn't really have to, like partner or do anything. Like I just had to kick in split and be like, over the top. So I mean, that was when I really started doing dance more often. 4:25
Andrew: So what did it feel like at that point where it turns from I guess being just about the social aspect and the dancing as a part of that, too, I guess being more seriously about the dance itself.
Harper Watters: Yeah, so as I progressed as a dancer with classes, and I got older, I just learned that you could have a career in dance, I always thought that dance could be was only a pastime and then it was like a hobby, it was like an elective or something, I didn't realize that you could make it your full time profession.
And so when I discovered companies like ‘Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,’ and I discovered dancers like Carlos Acosta, I found them on YouTube. And so I was like, obsessed. And so that was like, I needed to know how they got to where they were, so that I could do it myself. And I learned about that they took ballet every day. And they went and trained at schools that were just for dance, not like academics. And so that was what put it on my radar. And that's what I really started working towards. 5:48
Andrew: You've gained a big profile, obviously in dance. But maybe your biggest profile has been in social media through your videos on YouTube and Instagram, and what have you. And for me, these mediums seem very much like an extension of your practice, as opposed to just a sales pitch or something like that. So what are they spaces for you? What do you use them for?
Harper Watters: You know, I think what it's turned into was, I really just was starting to have fun sharing myself and sharing aspects of myself. And nothing I share is consider work, I never consider it like, I have to get this content up. I have to do this for the following. It's really on doing this, because it's just so fun to do. And what it's turned into is, it's turned into kind of this chosen family environment where it empowers people to see the real simple power of being yourself. And that you don't have to sacrifice your dreams, your aspirations, just because of the way you look or what you believe in or who you love and I tried to make through sharing my life, I tried to make the ballet world a lot more colorful, a lot more diverse, a lot more inclusive.
But then also offstage, I tried to do the same thing. And it's it was really interesting, because when I joined the company, I was 18 years old. And I thought I knew everything. But I quickly realized I didn't and I struggled a lot with finding my voice as a dancer. And I thought that I knew what it was to be a dancer.
I thought it was all physical stuff, like all technical turns, kicks legs, and that really helps. But you know, it's so much more. And dancers are artists. And I was posting all this stuff that was getting such a following on my social media, running in heels and dancing to Beyonce.
And, you know, I was expressing myself so freely on my social media. And I was like, why am I not doing that in my dance? And I'm, why am I not doing that if I'm getting such a positive response on my social media. And so my career has been really elevated through self acceptance, and owning my truth.
And so I just tried to share that in hopes that I'm living proof that you know, like you can, you can do what makes you happy, and you can be sassy you can be, you can have an attitude, you can love The Real Housewives, you can love Beyonce, and you can still be called a professional at whatever you're doing.
Andrew: It would be a shame if you couldn’t love Beyonce, irrespective of whatever professional you are in. You have to love Beyonce.
Harper Watters: She's universal.
Andrew: Quite often social media is critiqued because it isn't necessarily authentic, or people are showing a particular side of themselves that is overly constructed or curated. How do you find that line? Or how do you tread that line yourself?
Harper Watters: It's so difficult, because, you know, social media is really good at telling you what works and what doesn't. And then as a natural reaction, you want to keep doing what works because, you know, at the end of the day, audience is currency nowadays. So the larger the audience, the more currency you can receive. And it's really hard to balance what sometimes maybe you really are passionate about, and then you're not getting a good reaction. And you're like, well, damn, like I really liked about and, but people aren't responding to it.
So it's a fine line. But I really believe that authenticity creates so much more of a positive effect than trying to please the masses. And in ballet, a lot of times, we say that it's quality over quantity. And I feel like the same principle is kind of applied to social media.
I feel like it's so much more important to cultivate your own environment, with what you create, and the following that you have, rather than just trying to please everybody.
Andrew: There's something that's also being said. And I've heard a lot about, particularly around ballet, that so much of what makes ballet a rarity, or such a unique practice is all the work happens behind the scene that the audience doesn't see, and in your work, you've kind of open that world up in a real way for YouTube, or what have you, do you think that that dilutes the essence of what Ballet is or the the artistry or the magic of what a work can transform?
Harper Watters: You know, I think that just a little, I feel like Ballet used to be so rigid and so reserved, and you didn't see anything about it. And when you see a movie stars, and you see these athletes and they have such success for and people want to know what they're doing off the stage. I feel like that is what I kind of wanted to get out with Ballet.
And so I like to shake things up, I like to go against the grain. And I think I more people need to show who they are as people so that your work on stage becomes more authentic.
A lot of the performances that resonate the most with me, when I see someone do Romeo and Juliet or I see someone do another classic Ballet is when I'm like, whoa, I'm connecting with their emotions on an authentic level. I'm like, I feel that that is that is resonating with me. And that only happens because they are sharing themselves openly. And so I want people to see Harper on the stage. I don't necessarily want them to see me trying to be this like macho dude, because that's just not going to happen. And so I think I need to be like, this is me, get to know me backstage, get to know me here. And now see how I can transform but still be Harper on stage as a professional. So I think it's so important to share yourself into give a little peek into our world. I'm not going to share so much but a little bit is good.
Andrew: Just a taste.
Harper Watters: Just a taste, I mean, like it, but it's, it's true. There is like a little bit of it's like an iceberg. They only see the tip. But there's so much going on blood, sweat, tears, drama, you know, it's all part of it. But I think showing that a little bit is good people need to relate to the artists. And I think people need to see a bit more diversity and a little bit more of themselves. And if we don't share that, then it will continue to be kind of what it has been for so many years.
So I share my gayness. I share my sassiness. I share my love for things. And I show other people who are working in my company through my YouTube series in the hopes that the next generation see Oh, I like that too. And I also want to be a dancer, or Oh my God, I am obsessed with that album. Or that TV show, too. Oh my god, I love the Kardashians. I don't know, like, something like that. That That shouldn't prevent you from being able to step into a classroom and work hard at being a ballet dancer. 14:24
Andrew : Have there been some surprising reactions or particular feedback or stuff that you've received that has. Yeah, I guess surprised you?
Harper Watters: Oh, my God. Yes. Oh, yeah, I get tons of negative comments. And I'm overwhelmed with the positivity as well. But recently, there was an Instagram post on a ballet account where it was a bunch of men doing all these tricks, tons of jumps, spins, very masculine, hyper masculine moves. And in the comments, someone commented, thank you for sharing this. This is Ballet, not what that idiot at Houston Ballet shares in heels and tutus, and he doesn't tag me. Clearly he’s referencing me but you know, because I have a following. And people follow that account, I became aware of the comment very quickly. And first, I wanted to drag him and be like, you know, I really wanted to, like go in on him. But, you know, at the end of the day, my goal is inclusive. And my goal is everybody to have to be accepted. That's just not the right reaction.
And so I wrote this kind of, like, open letter on my Instagram talking about Ballet and where it's going. And the truth of the matter is, those men and the men in that clip are going to have to make choices that are completely unrelated to those moves and have to do with deep emotion. And they're only going to be able to do it if they're accepted. And in an environment that is compassionate, and understanding and vulnerable. And so I tried to, educate rather than respond with hate, but it is still a battle, I'm called a bad representation all the time. And you can call me any name under the sun but bad representation is what I will take offense to. Because bad representation means I'm not playing by your rules. And you're not, you're just not willing to see mine. I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying I could be right too.
So I just feel like I'm not trying to say that I'm the only way to do something. And I think people with my message interpret that I'm saying, put on a pair of heels if you want to become a classical ballet dancer, but my message is less about I'm right or look at me, it's more about there's room for all of us. And so I hope that that gets conveyed, and that the image of what it means to be a man and a male is also shifting these days. And so to keep it inclusive, to keep an open mind, because there is room for all of us. And success is possible for everybody. So just be inclusive, be open, be nice. 17:56
Andrew: I think the difficulty obviously within a lot of ballet and the way people look at it is it is so highly gendered.
Harper Watters: It's hard to get those kind of comments. But it's kind of like when you there's like a cake and gorgeous wedding cake. And a little fly goes on it. You're like only going to focus on the fact that that fly is on it. You're not going to see the rest of the cake. So hate comments are like that for me, because I do get a lot of incredible messages and a lot of positive ones. But the surprising ones, are those evil hate, shady comments.
Andrew: Well, I mean, it's very interesting historically dance and ballet in particular, has not necessarily been the most open or inclusive place in terms of sexual diversity. Despite the fact that there's huge numbers of gay dancers and there have been historically but companies went above and beyond to downplay the involvement of gay men, denied their partners or, you know, particular aspects of that. Have you had to navigate parts of that in the ballet world? Obviously you're accepted and very open within your own company. But are there challenges around sexuality and being so openly and proudly gay?
Harper Watters: Yeah, I think that, let's face it, like you were saying, the principal roles and every classical ballet are male to female. And so I have a lot of fear as I rise through the company.
If I’m put in a position where I have to fall in love with a woman or convey that, because I'm like, it's not going to happen offstage. So like, how am I going to, how am I going to draw upon that? And that's kind of what I was talking about with that post. It's that, you know, I have to find things within me, how can I relate to this to make it so it is believable, but yeah, I battle it. There's roles where I've been told ‘Harper, you need to be more macho, you need to say things that are in your head that are dirty, you want to say that to a woman’, you know, when I'm like?! like it's just not it's not comfortable. But it's all about finding how you can do it.
But there's so many more roles that I think people are unaware of that play into this kind of homosexual not hetero normative type of roles with a lot of drag and ballet with the stepsisters in Cinderella being played by men and Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty. But I really hope that we get to a place where there are characters who are gay, who are
normal humans but have a story and you want to know backstory to them, and you want to know why they're doing certain things. And I hope that we move towards that in the future. 20:59
Andrew: It’s very interesting you say that you know, talking about the shifting roles. I mean, I interviewed in this season, Chase Johnsey who danced in the female ensemble and how that kind of really shifted and also started a lot of conversations. And there was a similar backlash around representation and roles and who should be dancing what and tradition, but it it does feel like things are shifting probably not necessarily as fast as they could. But you know, there is some movement. 21:42
Harper Watters: I mean, like, look at, what's that movie Love Simon, it wasn't the greatest movie, but it is important. And it was a mainstream kind of romantic comedy about a gay man. And I feel like we are taking the steps in the right direction. And hopefully it becomes more inclusive, more complex, it becomes more interesting, it becomes more diverse and so we have these movies and art forms and mediums that are equal in kind of context and impact, but represent so many different communities, rather than just kind of a hetero normative storyline. So we're getting there. But the struggle is real, you know…
Andrew: … And in talking about representation, obviously, ballet has historically been very white, and has also been particular racial elements around ballet and racism within ballet, it feels like those attitudes are shifting and you know, particularly in the last probably 15 years or so have you had to come across, I guess, so come up against outdated attitudes or experiences for your time?
Harper Watters: You know, I was very nervous to come to Houston, Texas, to start my career, you know, like, you hear Texas, you hear south, and then you see this. So I was very nervous. But a big reason I came to this company was because of Lauren Anderson, who was the first African American principal of a major Ballet company. And she played a huge part and the reason why I'm here and the reason why I'm still here, but I think there's such a shift because one, people know that it has to be made. But two because there's been there's been an effort to make it more inclusive for young children. And, you know, like, you can't just ask anybody to step on stage and be a ballet dancer, they have to execute these moves to a certain standard. Ballet is an art form that is expensive. And I feel like it's sometimes made only available to certain people. And so when companies make an effort to go to places that are more rural, or maybe not as affluent and are giving those type of people an opportunity, then you're increasing the chances for Ballet to become more diverse.
I think people are starting to see that because it takes years and I feel like it's been happening kind of behind the scenes. But people who aren't in the Ballet world are like, where's the diversity, where's the diversity, but I just, I feel like it is happening. I mean, I was the only African American dancer in my company for one season. And now we have three but we also have Cubans and it's it's starting, and I think what's great about social media is that these people, maybe not people who are as into social media as I am, but they share and they have social media, and you can see it, you know, visibility is powerful. So you're starting to see a lot more diversity. 25:18
Andrew: Yeah, I think you named the main problem is the money and the investment. When people are younger, I mean, the amount of money and training camps and classes that goes to developing a body and developing the skill set to then or audition to the right schools to then audition to the companies. And I mean, it's a long term investment that I think a lot of people don't necessarily understand.
Harper Watters: Yeah, exactly. So a lot of different things play a part into it.
Andrew: Well, it certainly feels like dance is, you know, in that sense, becoming more accessible. And I think also, obviously the conversations that, you know people like yourself are having around that visibility, and talking about the world in a way that I guess makes it more accessible. And I think it's very important. It's more of a statement than a question.
Harper Watters: That's great. Yes it’s Data. 26:21
Andrew: Can we talk about heels and dancing in heels? I mean, one obviously pinks a pretty good colour. Can you talk about that sass, I mean, you mentioned it before, and what brought to your dancing.
Harper Watters: And so the heels are, oh, they were a gift from my good friend who no longer dances with our company. But he gave it to us, I feel like it was like our Christmas present. And me and my other best friend.
And it was around the time of like, Season Four, Season Five of like, RuPauls drag race, so like the really good seasons. And so we just were, we were starting to gain the confidence and interest and curiosity about putting on heels, and what that would do. And so we had the heels and we were working out and we really could you imagine if we went and just ran on a treadmill, like, wow, what happened, we filmed it, we posted it, and it really blew up. And that was my first taste of kind of a viral response to something that wasn't me being a Ballet dancer, I had kind of gained a following on Instagram for just being a Ballet dancer. And like having my leg up in the air and doing all these splits. But this was my first time getting a response from just like people who had no idea what being a dancer was. So I wanted to do it more I wanted to I wanted more attention. But the heels quickly turned into not just a clothing option, it turned into kind of a feeling and it was like you put on the heels and the sass comes out the confidence, you walk a certain way you have to own it a certain way and I was I felt like I was finding and discovering a new part of me that had always been in there but like I just didn't really have the confidence to bring out.
And like I was saying earlier I started to try and bring that out in my dancing and so I do know that a lot of people will see the heels as just like purely fun and fabulous which they totally are but a lot of people have I think understood like me that they represent so much more it's it's it's like a confidence it’s an attitude it doesn't have to be something physical that you put on you know it's something you own and you develop yourself so I love them they hurt sometimes I twisted many in it and an ankle you know doing some things but they're really fun and I just covered a magazine here in Houston with them on and it was the first time it's they've really been photographed and it's crazy a lot of my friends are like ‘could you ever have imagined that those pink heels would still be with you and you'd still be wearing them.’ And I love them and they've done me well. 29:44
Andrew: So you've only got the one pair?
Harper Watters: Well I've gotten a few more. Those are my go-tos those are Kelly and Michelle and I've had the privilege of wearing some others for like Photo shoots. I did something with Elle magazine. And I got to go into the L Plaza. And I was like tying on… like these shoes were like more than my rent.
But I only own one pair. I just picked up a few from Target because I'm doing stuff with Target recently.
I made my friend, I did a video for Lift. And I threw him in a pair of heels. And so I still have those sparkly heels sitting in my car. I kind of just leave it in my car. So people like walk by and be like, what's going on? Um, but yeah.
Andrew: There's something that you say around the attitude which definitely comes across in your video isn't mean you're dancing. And there is also nothing worse than seeing somebody wearing heels that doesn’t understand the attitude wearing them like a pair of clogs. It's like, what's the point? What's the point of wearing heels, if you're not going to have some attitude?
I'm talking about I guess how that translates into your dancing. So are there particular roles or particular I guess experiences actually dancing within the Ballet world that stand out or highlights?
Harper Watters: Yeah, I feel like I am more drawn to the we call it neoclassical roles which are, or contemporary roles that are kind of plotless, they're not a story, they don't follow a plot, you know, like, I'm not playing a character, but I have intricate steps to do. And I love that more. Because then I really can bring myself into it. And you can learn the steps like, it's very easy to learn the steps. And I suffered from that my early years in the company where I just would learn the steps and think I was done. And I would do the steps and they kind of be like, and come on, like, what else is, then I like, what I'm doing the steps, you know, and it's like, you have to, you have to bring more to it.
And I would struggle with that. But when I would put on a pair of heels, like, if you just do like a sass thing there, you could take a risk, you could really hold that corner. And then you could really like, give an eye and I was like, I need to do that with my dancing. And so the neoclassical roles allow me to play with the music and make different choices about how I'm going to syncopate things or where my focus is going to be, as far as the audience and in interacting with other people, smart, getting kind of making each step have intention.
And I love the choreographer, William Forsythe. We just worked with him a few seasons ago, and we did this Ballet called Artifact sweet and there's this part for six women and the Ballet has been done before and they start and he kind of got a gauge of who was doing the part and he goes, ‘hold up, hold up, do you guys want to do like a hip bounce?’ And they were like, What is going on? And he was like, ‘I feel like it needs like a like a hip bounce.’ And they were like, okay, you know, and so I love the choreographer who can understand that things can change and that things can develop and how to take it so it keeps being fresh and moving forward.
There's a choreographer, Wayne McGregor, we just did a piece from him... there's a Ballet he does called Chroma, which is like, super famous that I have still never done that I'm dying to do. But we did another one of his Ballets. And I love his work, I love his work, what he can pull out of a dancer!
He's really about noises, and like, trying to… like he never counts. He's always like, garah ahga, and you are like ‘what is going on but you respond to that, and he really pushes he really pushes dancers. So whenever I danced those words, I really feel like I can be myself and kind of make some fun choices. 34:52
Andrew: And is that going back again, to the fact that some of the ballet roles don't necessarily speak to you like the, more heterosexual or heteronormative, kind of roles don’t kind of speak to you as much?
Harper Watters: I'll say I'll be honest, I feel like there's a bit of fear in those heteronormative roles. Yeah, there is a bit of fear, and that like, it's like, I really am going to have to be vulnerable. But I have always known that when you take a risk, you reap the benefits. And I am not against doing those roles. I just think if I have a choice, I'd rather do these neoclassical ones.
I think that I still, and I know that I still struggle with the kind of fact that I still think that I have to be something or I have to, I have to do it like that.
And when you see other dancers or the leading dancers do it so well, and they do it so confidently, and they they maybe are straight or heterosexual, you know, I put in my mind, oh, I have to do it like that. And kind of finding your way is difficult. It's not easy. You know, ballet isn't something that you type in and press enter, or like, there's no equation for anything. So sometimes the process can be intimidating, like, it feels like this, like this wall.
And I don't feel that as much with neoclassical work, but I'm challenging myself, I'm trying to push myself. But if I could pick definitely the neoclassical stuff. 36:46
Andrew: What are the things you're working on at the moment that you're looking forward to, or things that are coming up?
Harper Watters: Yeah, so our Director he just started a world premiere. Sylvia it is a lot of Greek mythology. And he's introduced many more characters and I get to play Apollo. And the Balanchine version of Apollo is this really kind of stoic man with the three muses, who are played by women. And that's kind of who I thought I was going to be playing in this version. And I was like, oh, but this one is much more playful and humorous, and he's kind of a bitch. And I'm really excited to take on that challenge. And Justin Peck, who just won a Tony for his Choreography and Carousel, and he just finished a world premiere in our company. He was here working with us for two weeks. And he is from New York. And that was super fun to be able to move in his vocabulary. He's used to these New York city Ballet dancers, who are these really Jazzy, fast moving dancers. And so to be able to kind of pull from my leg competition background, that has been super, super fun.
And then in October, we're going to Dubai as a company where I've never been. And I mean, I'm excited to dance Swan Lake, but I'm also like, dying to get on a camel. So there's a lot to look forward to. 38:30
Andrew: Are you worried about your gender and sexual expression when you're in Dubai?
Harper Watters: Yes, yes, we have already started meetings about culture and how to properly behave. And you know, we pack theater cases where we send things away, like certain things if you don't want to pack it in your luggage, they will mail it for you. And it was already very specific, nothing religious, nothing offensive, nothing with this, you know, so it is going to be a culture shock.
But I think it's really important that we go and I think it's important that we show up and we show out and we be respectful but also kind of this is part of a bigger message, I think. So it's important that we go and I'm, I'm excited to go. I don't know how much I'm going to, like do outside of the hotel. But like, I'll be good when I'm walking the streets.
Andrew: Not in your high heels?
Harper Watters: Not in the high heels! The heels are going to stay right here. It's good. 39:47
Andrew: Thinking about dance and you know, a career in dance potentially has some sort of end date or morphs into different aspects. Where do you think you're going to go? Or head? Or is that too far too far into the future for you to think about?
Harper Watters: No, you know, like, I moved to Houston, this will be my 10th year living in Houston. And I moved here when I was 16 years old.
And I never would have thought that I would have been working with brands been in magazines, but all through the success of being a Ballet dancer. So it's like, there were aspirations I had, that were on my radar that have come about that I just never knew were possible. So I could say, I want my own talk show like that. I would love my own talk show. Or I would love to continue merging Ballet with mainstream things, like maybe a makeup line or have a fashion line with something or be a muse for someone.
But I don't know, like, I just, I, I'm kind of just riding the wave and I'm a big person on trusting my gut. And when I feel like it's time to take the shoes off, I'll know that. But
right now, I'm just really, really excited about what I've been doing as a classically trained ballet dancer who works five days a week, who works lots of hours that I'm still able to have all these exciting off stage projects. So, um, and there's stuff in the works that I that I have coming up very soon as well. So I don't know. I don't know. But I would love a talk show, I’d love a talk show. 41:36
Andrew: Yeah, I could see you on a talk show actually. There's a lot that doesn't translate in a podcast. And that's the physicality and particularly when you're interviewing dancers and choreographers, the amount that is communicated with the body and the face obviously doesn't translate into audio. And yeah, but I think that would translate beautifully into a talk show.
Harper Watters: I think so. Or, you know, like, or being like a judge on something. I think all these dance shows they lack like a classical point of view, because sometimes I'm like, that line of that leg was not cute and I feel like a judging, maybe a judging show, no a judging show... What am I saying? Not like I judge you. But like something where I could be a charge and give helpful critique. You know, I could do that! But not like a purely judging show. Oh, my God.’