Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters corresponded with Ballerina Book Club about his favorite reads, how books relate to dancing and his advice (by way of Beyoncé) for someone trying to break into the field.
My name is Harper Watters, and I’m a terrible cook. My good friend wrote this book, and I’m so proud of him. I never looked at cooking as a form of art or like a dance with the ingredients, but this book has shifted my fears of cooking and allowed me to create some really delicious dishes. My dad was the cook of our household, so having this book that also gives little gems of the relationship Lazurus has with his father makes me super nostalgic.
This trio of books is just wow, wow, wow important. Kimberly Drew, one of the authors, says: “Our biggest call to action as allies is to continue learning.” This series of books did just that for me. Queerness, race, the gender binary — all vital things that unite us all and are written about so thoughtfully with this trio of books.
All I will say is, the title says it all. Why wouldn’t you read it? Have I read it? Yes, and it’s obviously working.
I really believe visibility is currency, and in this case, it’s not monetary, it’s representation. I turn to this book often in times of frustration after a rehearsal where I can’t connect to a character or [when] I need a reminder of what other artists have been through and fought for.
There’s this ongoing stereotype that all men in ballet are gay/queer. Those familiar with our world know that’s not the case. But what happens when you actually confirm the stereotype? This book has helped me stand firm in my sexuality and confront those who think they know who I am as a dancer and a person simply based on my sexual identity.
What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
It was actually “This Is What I Know About Art” [by Kimberly Drew], one of the books in the Pocket Change Collective. This particular book was at the top of my recommendations the past few months because as a BIPOC person who has many colleagues and friends who are allies, who have careers intertwined with the arts, this book does a fantastic job at showing how to embrace what might be daunting and use our passion to make a difference in the world of art.
What’s your reading style? Where do you read/what time of day/do you snack?
I’m definitely a travel reader. Maybe because I’m a Capricorn and an only child who constantly had to create fantasy to stay entertained, but any time I’m sitting still I feel like I could be strutting down a sidewalk or up creating something. When I’m traveling, it’s like the universe saying, “You have no choice but to grab a book and start discovering.” Which is exactly what quarantine did for me, resulting in the most I’ve read in a very long time.
What was your relationship to reading like as a kid?
Both my parents were college English professors — my mom’s major in school and focused curriculum was children’s literature. So let’s just say my summer reading was lit. I vividly remember my first book being “The Rainbow Fish”… which, hello… was that written for me?! From then on, I was always encouraged to read, and read every style of book.
When I was 13, my mom gave me “Pedro and Me,” a graphic novel [by Judd Winick] about the life of Pedro Zamora, the openly gay cast member from “The Real World” who passed away from AIDS. She knew I would sneak to watch that all the time, and I think gave me that book to open my eyes. I will cherish that moment forever because, one, that was my first encounter with the power of learning people’s stories, and, two, it taught me how to be empathetic to those who are needing love. Something I practice every day, and it started with that book.
How do reading and books inform how you relate to your career as a dancer?
Reading was the OG social media. I could discover, learn about people’s lives, see mind-blowing images of gorgeous dancers. Reading was the original visibility I so desperately needed when I was not just figuring out dance, but also my identity. Learning to incorporate identity into your work is so vital; it separates you from dancer to artist. So I read to learn, gain confidence, connect and be inspired by the artists who sashayed before me whose shoulders I now stand on.
How did you get into ballet as a profession?
I’m pretty sure forcing my dad to build me a gymnastics balance beam in my living room so I could be Dominique Dawes was the final straw for energy outlets in our house, so dance was the next obvious choice. I’m grateful to have parents who considered dance and the arts as an option for physical activity — that’s not always the case when it comes to young boys. Their support and openness is what I leaned on as I navigated moving to Massachusetts at 14 for performing arts high school, moving to Houston at 16 to join Houston Ballet II and the challenging roles that led me to become a soloist.
What advice would you offer to someone trying to break into your field?
Someone once said, “When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets, leave something to remember, so they won’t forget … I was here.” That person was Beyoncé (fully laughing as I wrote that), and, yes, that’s an intense quote, made even more dramatic by the fact that it’s Beyoncé, but go for it. Surround yourself by people who support your vision and drive, be patient and diligent, vulnerability is strength, and learn to love a dance belt.
What’s a passion outside of your public persona that people might be surprised to know about?
I’m obsessed with K-pop. If you love dance, specifically the ever-important incorporation of precise musicality, get into these K-pop idols because, baby, they are serving. “Black Swan” by BTS … chills.
Favorite pasta recipe? (Bella’s obsessed with pasta, did you know?)
It’s a toss-up between a Bolognese or a cacio e pepe.
Favorite book store?
There’s a place called Half Price Books in Houston. I’m not sure if they have them everywhere, don’t come for me if it’s like the Starbucks of the book world, but that’s where I usually go.
A book you’ve always wanted to read but for whatever reason haven’t.
My dad wrote an encyclopedia, “The Encyclopedia of New England.” I know the real reason I haven’t read it, but I just keep telling him … “Sorry, I have dance.”
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
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Top Image: Harper Watters. Photo: Luke Austin.