In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, dancer/choreographer Lester Horton developed a dance technique based on Native American dances, anatomical studies and other movement influences. In addition to creating his technique and choreographing a number of works, Horton established the Lester Horton Dance Theater, one of the first permanent theaters dedicated to modern dance in the U.S., in Los Angeles in 1946. (It closed its doors in 1960.) He was also among the first choreographers in the U.S. to insist upon racial integration in his company—in his 1995 autobiography, Revelations, Alvin Ailey wrote, “What it came down to was that, for Lester, his art was much more important than the color of a dancer’s skin.” Horton’s legacy is perhaps most visible today in Ailey’s work, and Horton technique is the foundation for masterpieces including Revelations and Cry. Recent years have seen a resurgence in Horton technique across the country, especially on the West Coast, where Horton created most of his work.
How to Prepare
Dancers coming to their first Horton class can prepare by drawing on their experience with jazz dance. “Many jazz teachers incorporate some of Horton’s ideas in their warm-ups,” says Ana Marie Forsythe, chair of The Ailey School’s Horton Department. For instance, Horton uses flat backs and lateral stretches, tilt lines and lunges, all movements that could be found in a jazz warm-up. (Horton technique also incorporates lyrical, circular movements focusing on stretching in opposite directions.)
Outside of the classroom, students can look to graphic design, typography and architecture for a sense of the clean, clear lines emphasized in Horton technique. For example, “we do a ‘Lateral T,’ and it looks like a big, block letter T,” Forsythe explains.
“Horton believed in getting the body warmed-up and blood flowing quickly,” Forsythe says, “so class begins standing, rather than sitting, like some other modern techniques.” The specific order of exercises can vary based upon the teacher’s interpretation of the technique. As taught at The Ailey School, codified Horton technique incorporates 17 “fortification studies” (among other elements) that each focus on a different idea, such as descent/ascent and laterals, or body parts such as the Achilles tendons or abdominals. Class then progresses across the floor with movement phrases, turns and single-foot arch springs (jumps from one foot).
Don Martin, who studied with Horton and heads up the Lester Horton Dance Theater Foundation, Inc., explains that exercises always tie in to one another. “The movements are never arbitrary. There’s always a segue,” he says.
Horton died of a heart attack in 1953 before completely documenting and cementing his ideas, and so the way that Horton technique is presented can differ from one teacher to the next. One constant is that the technique is designed to correct and improve dancers’ physical limitations so that they might pursue any form of dance. Additionally, Horton was interested in clearly defined shapes, as well as how a dancer can move through these shapes with energy and use of space.
“Horton’s technique isn’t limited to a concept of one or two movements and their contrasts,” Forsythe explains. The technique is dynamic and dramatic, develops both strength and flexibility, and works with an energy that is constantly in motion. The primary focus of many beginner-level Horton studies is creating length in the spine and hamstrings. There is also an emphasis throughout all levels on developing musicality and performance qualities. As students progress, exercises become longer and more complex; Martin, who’s currently teaching the technique at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, describes these exercises as “almost like études. They’re like concert pieces in themselves.”
“I’ve been teaching this technique for more than 40 years,” Forsythe says, “and I continue to be impressed with the intelligence and sense of humor that Horton incorporated. It’s maintained my interest after all these years. It’s so accessible for dancers. And I love how it helps create dancers who are long and strong.”
Joshua Legg is a technique instructor and rehearsal director for Harvard University’s Dance Program. He holds an MFA in dance choreography and performance from Shenandoah University.