How Ballet Helped Harper Watters Find His VoiceThe first soloist opens up about dancing, friendship, and mental health.
When he’s not killing it on TikTok or on stage as a first soloist at the Houston Ballet, Harper Watters is being intentional about slowing down. As a Capricorn, it’s not easy, he admits. But if there’s one thing ballet and nearly a year in therapy has taught him, it’s that taking time to actually enjoy life and prioritize his friendships is just as important as dance. Here, Watters talks to Wondermind about relating hard to the ol’ “it’s lonely at the top” saying and how helping ballet evolve boosts his mental health.
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WM: How are you doing lately?
Harper Watters: I am a bit tired. We did an international tour in Japan, and we were there for only one week. Then I came back, flew to perform in Los Angeles, and I was there for three days. In two weeks, I did three different time zones, so I'm feeling tired but actually really, really fulfilled and grateful to be able to travel and do what I love.
WM: What else is invigorating you lately?
HW: The election results. My dad is a state senator of New Hampshire, and he won reelection, so that's been invigorating. And The Nutcracker's the only ballet we do every single year in our season, and it's always a wake-up call to be able to check in with where you are as a dancer because it comes back every year. I'm feeling the rush and the energy and the pressure and the anxiety and the nerves of returning to it and wanting to do it well.
WM: You're also the first Black queer first soloist at the Houston Ballet. How does being the first influence your mental health?
HW: It’s an affirmation and confirmation of how I work and [that] what I'm doing is working. That gives me confidence that I'm in a great mental state and listening to my body, my mind, and my gut. That puts me in a good space because, ultimately, my goal was never to be the first of anything. It was to dance the best that I could. In order to dance the best, I had to be in tune with who I am as a person and in tune with who I am to my friends and my family. To be true to who I am and what I feel lent itself to dancing better and working better and smarter. By advocating for myself, I was advocating for my dancing, and I was able to see improvement and an upward trajectory that just so happened to fall at a time when I was the first. And I'm so honored and privileged to represent my company in that way. It gives me confidence that whatever special sauce I’m cooking with is working.
WM: And what role does dancing play in your mental health routine?
HW: Like Swan Lake, it's very much good side, bad side. The bad side is that ballet is an antiquated art form—it's built on ideals that are tough for a Black queer dancer. I'm in my 12th season at Houston Ballet, and when I first joined, I definitely thought I had to be a certain image. I had to portray a certain idea of what a man was and looked like and what a prince was and looked like. Dancing was my voice, and I wasn't sure what I was trying to say. That had an effect on my mental state, and it still does. It gives me a lot of anxiety sometimes when there's a role that I can't easily connect with or I feel maybe more vulnerable.
On the flip side, it's given me so much reward and brought me so much peace and enjoyment and fulfillment by tackling those things and by confronting those things that bring me fear. I never thought I'd be able to lead a three-act classical ballet, but I did that last season, and every time I do The Nutcracker, I get to redefine what a prince is for people. That makes me happy and supports my mental health and puts me in a good mindset. It is a bittersweet thing, but the pros outweigh the cons.
WM: What helps you get grounded before you perform?
HW: I feel like it's changed throughout the years. I'm now a first soloist, which is the second-highest rank in the company. With that comes a lot more responsibility in the roles that I dance. It also quite literally means that I'm not in the same dressing room as the younger [or] lower-ranked dancers in the company. I found that being around people and having conversations in the dressing room calmed my nerves. Now I'm in a dressing room by myself, and it's like I'm left with my own thoughts. So that brings a lot more nerves to the table.
But I have a routine; I'm very much a routine-oriented person. I like to leave the house before a show at the same time. I like to get my coffee at the same time. I do a 35-minute minute Pilates warmup that really grounds me, and I get in tune with my body. I do it every day, no matter the role. And I take my ibuprofen, drink my water, get to the theater at a certain time, and start my makeup at a certain time. Doing that routine prepares me for what I'm about to do and the role that I'm about to dance.
WM: That sounds like a big change to go from the main dressing room to your own private one.
HW: One of my biggest mentors here is Lauren Anderson, and she was the first Black principal dancer of a major ballet company. … I call her my fairy godmother because I'll turn to her and talk to her in times of stress (or I just want to gossip). She told me, “The higher ranked you become in the company, the lonelier it becomes.” I didn't really understand what she meant until I experienced it. It makes me value my friendships more, and I'm aware of it. And so I try to get down to the stage level earlier so I can have those interactions with people. It's very nice to have a heated carpet [in your] dressing room and be able to sprawl out, and I don't have to turn my TikToks down when I'm watching them. But to have the camaraderie, I miss that.
WM: What aspect of your mental health is a work in progress?
HW: I recently started seeing a therapist…because I just wanted support in my mental health. I was someone who had a stigma about going to therapy and what therapy meant, but it’s funny because I go to physical therapy all the time, and I'm not drastically injured. I’m just doing it to take care of myself. So I started going to therapy, and a lot of the things that came to the table of discussion was having a life outside of dance. One of the first things he asked me was, “How are you?” And every single time, my answer somehow would relate to ballet or dance. He said, “Have you ever answered that question referring to something that was just about your friends or what you did that had nothing to do with dance?”
As much as I love dance, too much of it and too much consumption of it and letting it dictate my life too much was having a negative effect on my mental health. I’m a Capricorn; I'm a workhorse. I love to achieve new things and always have these projects, but I was missing out on a social life, and that was having a negative effect on my mental health. So for my mental health right now, I'm just trying to enjoy more of my friends and the off time and realize that those are just as important, if not more important, than the moments I'm creating on stage.
WM: What mental health advice do you wish you could go back and give to your younger self?
HW: It would be the same that I would tell myself as a dancer: It's never going to be the perfect wave. It's about riding the wave that you're given. It's important to work and strive for perfection, but it's never going to be perfect. … It's about how you work and what you're trying to say with your work and having it come from an honest place. It's the same thing with my mental health; it's listening to my body. If I'm tired, I’m tired. Or if you are craving social interaction, listen to your body [even] if it's going against your routine. Be more forgiving and more flexible with myself and in my dancing as well. It makes it more human, and it makes it more thoughtful and from a place of intent.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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