There's a cliché that all little boys start taking ballet lessons because they have sisters, and then quit because they get bullied by their peers. But Harper Watters, 26, has never fit this mold. "My story is less about bullying or getting tormented for being a dancer," he says. "It's more about not fitting in, and learning to accept that and deal with that."
Watters is an only child and was adopted by two college professors who encouraged and understood the importance of the arts. Growing up in New England, where hockey and sports were the main after-school activities for kids, Watters says ballet class was the only place where he felt he belonged. "The studio turned into my safe place where I needed to continue to be," he says. "I had a natural talent for dance, but my progression through dance, and my career really was [because] I just needed to be with people that I liked and wanted to be around."
Now Watters is a soloist with Houston Ballet, although chances are you know him from his iconic heels videos on Instagram. At first, Watters started making videos dancing in six-inch hot pink heels because it was "ridiculously entertaining." He'd go to the studio on a quiet Sunday and film a bunch of clips, complete with costume changes, to splice together for Instagram. "I quickly realized the persona I had on my social media and Insta was truly me," he says. "I was like, Why do I not bring aspects of that into my work? The second I did that, my dancing got better, and the roles I got increased because I had such a newfound confidence in myself."
The heels videos, and the confidence Watters gained, became his "ticket to getting out of the corps de ballet," he says. "The heels — yes they're fabulous and six inches — but it's so much more than a heel." The message he tries to send to his 141K Instagram followers, is to "find their own heels, whether it's a literal heel or it's something else."
Watters spoke to Refinery29 about self-acceptance, social media, and why ballet is a microcosm for society.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Most of the men represented in classical ballets are heterosexual princes, which can be challenging for aspiring male dancers. Is it important for you to show through your Instagram that it is possible to have a duality?
"I never really intended to be the face of something, or I didn’t really understand how simply being myself would empower others. But it has, and I'm so grateful for that. In order for us and ballet to have more diversity and inclusivity, people who are just starting out need to be able to see themselves in the dances. That inspires them to get into the studio.
"So, I tried to use my visibility and to use the power that I have in being myself. Self-acceptance is what allowed me to become a better person, but also a better dancer. Finding that, and learning that what makes me happy, who I love, what I look like has no effect on the quality of work I see, was really a powerful kind of moment for me. I just try to live authentically and share myself, and what makes me happy, and hope that it empowers others to do so as well."
Did you ever receive pushback from your company about your social media presence, or have they been supportive?
"I was so proud of my company for supporting my voice and understanding that, because it’s so important now. We have students in Houston Ballet who are transitioning, who are following me, and they need to be in a space where they feel supported and accepted. Recently, someone posted a video of men doing all these tricks, and someone commented, 'This is ballet, not what this idiot at Houston Ballet posts in heels and tutus.'
"You know, the students who come into a ballet company are going to have to make decisions in their careers that are completely unrelated to the tricks and extensions and everything. They're going to have to make choices that they're only going to be able to make if they are comfortable with who they are, are vulnerable, and are willing to make a mistake."
In order for us and ballet to have more diversity and inclusivity, people who are just starting out need to be able to see themselves in the dances.
Gender equality is a hot topic in ballet right now. Do you think that it's possible for there to be gender equality in ballet, or do you think it will always be gendered, as other dancers have told me?
"I like to think of ballet as this microcosm for what is in mainstream media. There are characters now who are finding their way into TV and into movies, who are lesbian, or who are trans. It's a stepping stone for more characters like that to hold more powerful, in-depth roles — and that's what we need as ballet dancers and creators to introduce more diversity inclusivity into the works of ballet roles.
"There is drag in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but you’re never like, What's the emotional backstory of the Step Sisters? It’s much more comedic and comedic relief. Why not introduce a supporting character to the ballet, or a one-act ballet that is clearly in drag, or is clearly gay, but has an emotional moment? There is a way to introduce more diversity so we can work toward equality in the ballet world.
"As a dancer of color, I would hope that someone who is white wouldn’t say: There's never been Black people in ballet. As a culture and society, we have to work on ourselves to achieve inclusivity and diversity as an idea. I definitely think it’s workable, and to me gender is just a social construct."
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