Horton Technique

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.

Class Structure

“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.

Key Concepts

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.
 
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. Photo by Constantine; Another Touch of Klee, 1951; Carmen de Lavallade, James Truitte, Lelia Goldoni.  

Latest Posts


Project 21 dancers (from left) Selena Hamilton, Gracyn French, and Dyllan Blackburn (Photo by Quinn Wharton; hair and makeup throughout by Angela Huff for Mark Edward Inc.)

How Project 21 Is Shaping the Next Generation of Competition-Dance Standouts

"I wish I had a better story about the name," says Molly Long, founder of the Orange County, CA–based dance studio Project 21. In truth, it's a play on the fact that she was born on the twenty-first of August, and 21 is her favorite number. "I was away on a teaching tour, the audition announcement was going live on Instagram the next day, and I desperately needed a name. Project 21 was just the least cheesy of the options I thought of!"

The fact that fans might expect the name to have some profound meaning speaks to the near-mythic status Project 21 has achieved on the competition and convention scene since its founding in 2014. Long's dancers are all wholly individual, yet jell seamlessly as a group, and are consistently snagging top prizes everywhere on the circuit. Each season brings a slew of new accolades, high-caliber faculty, and legions of devoted followers.

The industry has taken notice of the studio's unique ethos. "Molly gets through to her dancers in a special way, and they have this incomparable level of commitment to their craft as a result," says dancer and choreographer Billy Bell, who's worked closely with Long and her dancers. "That's what sets them apart—it's like a little dose of magic."

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Because this is stock art that exists in 2020. (Getty Images)

How to Dance in a Face Mask

There's a new must-have accessory for the dancers who've begun to venture back into the studio. Face masks are essential to protect your teachers and fellow dancers (not to mention their families) from coronavirus. But they definitely make dancing more complicated.

How can you prepare for—and adjust to—the new masked normal? Here's practical advice from Dr. Steven Karageanes, a primary care sports medicine specialist who's worked with the Rockettes and "So You Think You Can Dance," and Anna Dreslinski Cooke, a Chicago-based professional dancer who has experience dancing in cloth masks, disposable masks, N95 masks, and face shields.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search