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


Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Ashton Edwards Is Breaking Down Gender Barriers in Ballet

When Ashton Edwards was 3 years old, the Edwards family went to see a holiday production of The Nutcracker in their hometown, Flint, MI.

For the young child, it was love at first sight.

"I saw a beautiful, black Clara," Ashton says, "and I wanted to be just like her."

Ashton has dedicated 14 years of ballet training in pursuit of that childhood dream. But all the technical prowess in the world can't help Ashton surmount the biggest hurdle—this aspiring dancer was assigned male at birth, and for the vast majority of boys and men, performing in pointe shoes hasn't been a career option. But Ashton Edwards, who uses the pronouns "he" and "they," says it's high time to break down ballet's gender barrier, and their teachers and mentors believe this passionate dancer is just the person to lead the charge.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo Courtesy of Apple TV+

All the Hollywood and Broadway Musical Moments to Look for in “Schmigadoon!”

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of about two dozen dancers got the rare opportunity to work on an upcoming Apple TV+ series—one devoted entirely to celebrating, and spoofing, classic 1940s and '50s musicals from the Great White Way and Hollywood. "Schmigadoon!", which premiered on AppleTV+ July 16, stars Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key, who get stuck inside a musical and must find true love in order to leave. The show features a star-studded Broadway cast, including Aaron Tveit, Ariana DeBose, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Jane Krakowski and Dove Cameron, and is chock-full of dancing courtesy of series choreographer, Christopher Gattelli.

"The adrenaline was pretty exciting, being able to create during the pandemic," says Gattelli. "I felt like we were representing all performers at that point. There were so many who wanted to be working during the pandemic, so I really tried to embrace this opportunity for all of them."

Gattelli says it was a dream come true to pay tribute to the dance geniuses that preceded him, like Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Onna White and Jerome Robbins, in his choreography. Each number shows off a "little dusting" of their work.

Dance Spirit spoke with Gattelli about all the triumphs and tribulations of choreographing in a pandemic, and got an inside look at specific homages to look out for.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

Shouldering the Load: What kind of dance bag should dancers use?

Walk into any dance convention, audition or class, and you'll see a vast variety of dance bags lining the walls. But can the style of bag you use (and how you wear it) have an impact on your dancing?

Don't worry—you won't have to shoulder the load alone. Dance Spirit spoke with two physical therapists who specialize in working with dancers to find out what dance bag is best.

What should dancers look for in a dance bag?

Dr. Meghan Gearhart, physical therapist and owner of Head2Toe Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC, recommends dancers opt for a backpack-style dance bag rather than a duffel or cross-body bag.

"A bag that pulls the weight all to one side creates a side bend and rotation in the trunk," Gearhart says. "That is going to lead to muscle imbalances that will affect dancers while they're dancing, as well as just in regular everyday life." Muscle imbalances can mean limited mobility on one side of your body, as the muscles on one side are overly contracted and the other side is overly extended to compensate.

Gearhart suggests dancers pick a backpack made from a lightweight yet durable and breathable material, such as cotton, linen, nylon or polyester. Straps should be wide enough to not dig into your shoulder muscles, so avoid drawstring styles with rope straps. Adjustable and padded straps are best, so you can wear the straps at a length where the bag rests at the middle of your back.

Dr. Bridget Kelly Sinha, physical therapist and founder of Balanced Physical Therapy and Dance Wellness in Matthews, NC, emphasizes the importance of finding an even weight distribution when choosing a dance bag.

"If a dancer has a lot to bring, like when heading to the theater for a full day of rehearsals and performances, then I recommend a rolling suitcase to offset the load," Sinha says.

How should dancers wear their bags?

Even if you've selected the perfect dance bag, it's important to be mindful of how you wear it.

Gearhart advocates wearing both straps when carrying your backpack. She also suggests placing heavier items towards the back of the bag, where they will sit closer to your body. A bag with straps that are too loose (or a bag that is too heavy) can create an increased arch in the lower back or cause a dancer to compensate for the weight by leaning forward. Ideally, Gearhart recommends a dancer's dance bag weighing no more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight.

"I usually tell dancers to use their common sense. If you don't have tap today, you don't need to bring the tap shoes," she says. "If your water bottle makes the bag too heavy, just carry it." If your studio offers lockers, take advantage of that storage space to lessen the number of clothes, shoes, and dance accessories that live in your dance bag.

And if you think your bad dance-bag habits have given you alignment issues, seek out a dance physical therapist to prevent further injuries.

"As a dancer, your body is working so hard all day," Sinha says. "It does not need excess strain from your bag."

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search