Teacher's Wisdom: Milton Myers

July 22, 2007

Milton Myers has helped shape the careers of hundreds of dancers through the Horton technique, a dance form combining elements of modern, jazz, and ballet, recognized in signature works of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Myers danced with Ailey after performing extensively with the Joyce Trisler Danscompany. He now teaches at The Ailey School, STEPS on Broadway, The Juilliard School, and Philadanco and will direct the Contemporary Traditions program at the Jacob’s Pillow School for a 19th summer. He recently spoke with Rachel Straus about his more than 30 years’ experience as a teacher.

What is Horton technique?
It’s very active! Lester Horton believed that the body could be trained and freed through constant movement. He developed exercises to get the body and the pelvis in and out of the floor, move it up to down and around. For example, in one Horton exercise, the dancer goes from standing to sitting to lunging to standing, as the spine twists and untwists, the legs straighten and bend, and the pelvis tips forward and back and around. Whether in the seated floor work, standing adagio studies, or phrases that quickly go across the studio floor, he developed exercises that allowed the pelvis and the spine to be constantly mobile.

What benefits do dancers derive from studying Horton?
It makes very strong dancers. It’s like physical therapy in its approach to creating a balanced body. Horton developed exercises to increase mobility and strengthen the muscles around the body’s major joints: the hips, the shoulders, the knees, and the ankles. In the technique—with its emphasis on lunges, flat backs (standing in parallel, a straight upper body hinges forward at the hip socket to make a 90 degree angle), and laterals (extending a straight leg to the side in parallel, the torso and arms tip in opposition to make a straight line perpendicular to the standing leg)—the body’s center gets very strong.

Why not just go to the gym for strength training?
You can go to the gym and get really strong—now that they have so many incredible machines—but in a dance class you investigate what it is to perform. You learn how to focus and how to approach time and space. You learn how to dance with the people around you and to work as an ensemble. You also learn how to respond to music.

Can you say more about the therapeutic benefits of Horton technique?  
In Horton, we begin and end most exercises in parallel to counter the effects of constantly turning out. We work in parallel as much as we work in turn-out because it prevents injuries. Constantly opening and rotating the legs eventually weakens the body. When we go to physical therapy, the first thing they ask us to do is to turn our legs back in and do everything in parallel. This gets our core back together. By using turnout and parallel, muscles develop balance. 

Is Horton similar to ballet?
Yes, in its emphasis on legwork and high extensions, I find that Horton and ballet work really well together. Ballet dancers who are encouraged to take modern often find that Horton works best for them. It may have something to do with the fact that both techniques are codified, which means that the order of exercises is more or less predetermined. Ballet dancers seem to like all of Horton’s standing work; it really helps them get up on their legs.

How is your class different from other Horton classes? Lately, I am looking at Pilates, Gyrotonic, and yoga. I have a feeling that Horton’s style wasn’t as rigid as the way that it has been passed down. So, I’m working on taking positions such as the lateral and moving it more, putting a swing on it, crossing and spiraling it down into the floor. It’s the same lateral, but it isn’t held. Holding positions can create energy blockages. Dancers need to work with releasing movement as much as sustaining it. Horton was ahead of his time. He probably used more release movement than the technique as it is now taught.

What do you mean by release movement?  
Movement that emphasizes weight and gravity. My mentor Joyce Trisler worked with Doris Humphrey. Humphrey and Trisler both used release dynamics. Today, I see release styles in the works of Ohad Naharin and Angelin Preljocaj. Both are creating really free movement. In Preljocaj’s Les Noces, dancers hurl themselves off benches and others catch them. It’s amazing. Even though the choreography is structured and the dancers are really strong, everything looks free and spontaneous.

How can dancers prepare for the challenges of working with these choreographers?
It’s important that dancers don’t get locked into thinking that there is only one way to dance. They also need to understand that learning discipline builds a strong individual who is prepared for life.

Why do you use a demonstrator?
When I first toured with Alvin Ailey, he asked me to teach community classes. Before I taught these classes—and I taught a lot of them—I would say, “Oh my god. I have a performance tonight. Am I going to be okay?” I began to realize that whatever I did, the students would do. And if I stopped, they would stop. I thought, Wait a minute. This is really hard. Then I brought a company dancer to the class to demonstrate. Immediately I realized how quickly I could give information. I could see not just those who were getting it, but those who weren’t, and I had time to work with everyone. With a demonstrator, I feel that I can be the best teacher that I can be.