Harper Watters On How Owning Your Identity Will Change Your Life
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
This week, we called up the king of owning your identity: Harper Watters, the ballet dancer whose viral videos of himself slaying a pair of bubble-gum pink high heels while dancing on a treadmill transformed him into an internet sensation almost overnight. You don't need to know a single thing about ballet to be seriously inspired by Watters' story, which is chock-full of insightful revelations about why we all need to quit faking it and trying to copy other people's success stories. He tells us how embracing authenticity (and building a community around it) helped him finally unlock true personal and creative growth.
Has your black and gay identity affected your work and your art as a dancer?
Oh, absolutely. I'm adopted, so both my parents are Caucasian, and I've always been someone who's super-sensitive and aware of their surroundings. I used to be so petrified of people staring and looking at me, and I would internalize it as I'm different. It really took time and growing into my own that I was able to shift that. In auditions and in dance classes, I would look around; I'm the only person of color. I grew up in New Hampshire, you know—predominantly white. I went to a private school, and I really was the only African American in my school. I felt that sticking out [feeling] there.
But in dance, particularly, is when I started to be like, wait a second. If I stick out, and you're already looking at me, that means I have your attention. So now I have an opportunity to show you my hard work, everything I've worked for, and really show them who I am. You know? It's embracing your differences, embracing your flaws, what makes you unique, what makes you stand out so that you can take people's attention and say, "Now watch."
I embrace my identity and the color of my skin and my sexuality so much so because I have to. I'm a dancer. I'm an artist. I'm telling stories. My journey here at Houston Ballet has taught me that there has to be intent behind the steps. It has to be authentic, and the only way that I can achieve that is if I'm myself and if I bring elements of my world into my dancing. So I'm not running out in Swan Lake in a pair of pink heels, but I'm bringing elements of sass, or I play with the music, or I am able to take the feeling that I encounter with the people who I love and translate that into my work. And that's when my career really took off.
After those first pink heel videos went viral and people began flocking to follow you, were you nervous at all about what you'd say to all these people?
I really felt like I was a celebrity. I was like, I've made it. I am iconic forever. Like, I could retire.
And then you're brought back down to reality a little bit. But the response that I got was amazing, and I really do credit those videos for helping my dancing. Because when I posted those videos, I was in the corps de ballet. When you're a corps dancer, that's where you spend the majority of your time in the company, and it can be difficult to take yourself out of the corps to achieve a demi-soloist or soloist higher ranking because that's the largest body of the company. You have to find what unique things can you do to kind of distinguish yourself from the rest. And I started posting those heel videos when I was just in the corps, and I was like, oh my gosh. All these people love them, and it's so easy for me to be myself—over-the-top Harper—on social media. Why am I not doing that in my work?
I thought I had to be the dancers who were successful. I thought I had to emulate them, you know? Of course you can be inspired by their work ethic or what they do, but I really thought I had to act like them. I had to dance like them. And I was like—Harper, be yourself. Like, what confidence do you get when you put on those heels, and you're running on the treadmill? Look at how people respond to it. How do you translate that into your work? So I started to do that, and that is really what elevated my dancing and allowed me to get roles that would kind of boost my career to becoming the rank that I am right now. So I'm very grateful for those heels videos.
So social media really has had a positive effect on developing your confidence.
Yeah. Social media obviously has its flaws and can have its downsides, and I even was guilty of trying to please people and trying to give the people what they want. And of course I can become aware of what works and what doesn't, but trying to please people will be your biggest downfall in life. Trying to make others happy by sacrificing who you are is only a detriment to who you are and what you want to accomplish.
In ballet, there's this phrase. If you're doing a ton of pirouette, if you do like seven and it looks kind of messy, but if you do three that are quite beautiful, it's quality over quantity. That mentality of what the quality of the community that you're trying to build on social media and the people you have in your life is much more important than the quantity of people.
Can you share what your "coming out" process was like?
I was just about to go into my sophomore year of high school, and I was at the time going to private school in New England. I had these two close friends in high school, and I had a TV in my bedroom, and I was watching America's Next Top Model. I was chatting in a three-way call just like in Mean Girls. On the TV was Miss J, who was one of the judges—the catwalk judge. He was teaching them how to be a better runway model.
I wasn't out to them at the time, and [one of my friends] goes, "You know, you remind me so much of Miss J except you're straight." And I said, "Huh. You know, actually, I'm gay." It eased out. It was very simple. Her reaction was very calm and kind of like, "OK. Oh, I kind of knew and love that."
And the conversation dissipated, and I put the phone down and was like, well, that was so easy. I should just go tell my parents. So I walked downstairs, and I was like, "Mom, Dad, I have something important to tell you." I sat them down and said, "I'm gay, and I'm happy, and this really won't change anything. But I'm gay." And my mom goes, "I knew since you were 2!" I was like, "Well, you could've made this a bit easier!" But everything happens for a reason. And my dad started crying, and I was like, "Did I upset you?" And he was like, "I love you so much."
The fear of what’s gonna happen—that moment is when greatness happens and when personal growth is about to be achieved.
When I left that conversation, it was like that music video from Beyoncé, "Hold Up," where she opens the door in this yellow dress and this floodwater just comes pouring out, and she struts down the stairs. It was just this big, big relief.
But you know, a week later I was petrified to get back to school, and I created all these scenarios in my head about—I mean, it was New England. It was a hockey town. I was like, I'm not going to be accepted. I'm going to be bullied. So that really was the impetus to audition for performing arts high school. I knew that the community of a performance arts high school would be much more supportive.
I'm a firm believer of everything happens for a reason. Looking back, I would encourage the LGBTQ youth that you don't have to switch your environment. You don't have to make a drastic change like that to come out. There will always be people to support you. And if it's not your blood family, the chosen family is equally strong and equally supportive.
My career in ballet was hugely impacted by my coming out because going to performing arts high school really wasn't as much about becoming a dancer as it was becoming the person who I wanted to be.
Some people say the "coming out" process is changing—that it's becoming less important these days because it's so much more normal to be gay or queer.
We have been kind of moving in an upward direction of inclusivity, but the reality is that it's going back down because of this current administration. With Stonewall's 50th anniversary and World Pride happening in New York in June, this is supposed to be a massive celebration of what we have achieved and what the black trans women and trans community [achieved] when they started rioting 50 years ago. We are supposed to say look at how far we have come. And we can say that, but for it to start regressing now is scary—and a reality. So we have to keep that in mind, that the fight is not over, and there's still a lot of work to be done.
What does Pride mean to you?
My first Pride, I thought Pride was supposed to be—yay, gay people! Let's put on a glittery rainbow and go outside!
But just like Memorial Day and just like Veterans Day, these days aren't just to have a day. It's because of the sacrifice and fight that people have done. Pride didn't start as a parade—it started as a riot. And this is to commemorate that.
My career as an African American queer dancer, I'm able to say that because of the dancers who danced through adversity before me. I stand on their shoulders being able to achieve my dreams and my goals because of them. So we as a community have to realize that being gay and saying that and living your best life and twirling and kicking and owning everything so comfortably, that is because of people who came before us who have fought tooth and nail for that. Pride is just as much a celebration as much as it is an acknowledgment of the past. Fifty years in the big picture, that's just 1969 when that happened. That's not that long ago. What could another 50 do?
When you're celebrating and you're throwing on the cute outfit with the rainbows, what else could you do?
Also, Pride is I think a time when a lot of people choose to come out, or they contemplate it, and they kind of address their identity. As a dancer, I get nervous before I go on stage all the time. But nerves and being nervous and the fear of what's gonna happen, I always tell myself that that moment is when greatness happens and when personal growth is about to be achieved. It means you're doing something outside of your comfort zone where you're going to grow into something better. So the nerves that someone might feel before they come out and that uncertainty, know that means that you're on the brink of real personal growth.
What is one action that you wish all cis straight people would take to support LGBTQ people?
I don't want to just limit it to the heterosexuals of the world, but not doing anything is almost as bad as doing something negative. It again goes back to that put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Put yourself into the uncertainty. Always something really good, I feel, happens from that. By not participating in something, you're still affecting someone. Small acts of kindness or change will make a greater change.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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