Technique: The Hows of Horton

January 4, 2010

The Lester Horton technique constructs some of the best human skyscrapers in the dance world. And like good building design, the Horton technique’s emphasis on flat backs, pelvic hinges, and “lateral T’s” produces a long-muscled, powerhouse dancer–something not easily toppled. Uninitiated eyes widen the moment an advanced Horton dancer strikes a “lateral T.” To create the position resembling the letter “T,” a dancer stands on one leg, tilts his or her torso 90 degrees, and counterbalances it with the oppositional energy of the extending leg. Dancers capable of performing the lateral T in turns, jumps, and transitions to the floor project a sense of invincibility.


With a sprinter’s upper body strength, a gymnast’s flexible lower back, and a classical dancer’s articulated feet and legs, Horton dancers are athletic and expressive instruments. The technique produces an overall effect of fierceness, something many working choreographers desire.


Born in 1906 in Indiana, Lester Horton studied Native American dance, researched world dance styles, was inspired by occasional Denishawn concerts, and was a keen observer of the natural world. Moving to California in 1928, Horton danced with Michio Ito, a choreographer who had trained in Dalcroze Eurythmics, and then he formed his own company. He also choreographed for theater, films, and nightclubs. Generous, paternal, and a bit of a ham, he developed his technique by studying anatomy and by formulating exercises to strengthen and open up the body for performance in any style. The Lester Horton Dance Theater, which formally opened in West Hollywood in 1946, was the first permanent theater in the U.S. devoted to modern dance. It stood out for its ethnic inclusiveness. Having a diverse company, said former Horton dancer Don Martin “wasn’t a matter of being politically correct. If you could do the work, he wanted to work with you.” Horton died at age 47. Today his technique’s influence is worldwide.


Horton developed his technique on a handful of students. His primary protegee and later collaborator was Bella Lewitzky. When Lewitzky left to start her own company, Horton focused on Carmen deLavallade, James Truitte, Don Martin, Joyce Trisler, Janet Collins, Arthur Mitchell, and Alvin Alley. It was Ailey, a youngster, who stepped in after Horton’s sudden death to choreograph the necessary premieres.


Today Alley dancer Matthew Rushing, former Bella Lewitzky dancer and choreographer John Pennington, and master Horton teacher Cynthia Riesterer—who worked closely with James Truitte when he set out to codify the entire technique at the University of Cincinnati—all credit the Horton technique as instrumental to their successful careers.


Milton Myers, who teaches at Jacob’s Pillow and The Ailey School, says the technique strengthens and increases the expressive range of every body, not just classically proportioned ones.


Ana Marie Forsythe, who chairs the Horton department at The Alley School, says Horton’s warm up, like the ballet barre, moves from simple to more complex exercises. It begins with roll downs and flat hacks. It culminates with fortification studies, many of which teach students to transition from the floor to knees to standing smoothly.


Cynthia Riesterer says the technique addresses every inch of the body and that “each one of the 17 fortifications is based on working a specific body part or a quality of movement.” Riesterer teaches at Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts.


James Truitte (1923-1995) said that the Horton technique creates dancers who possess meticulous attention to detail. Truitte taught at the University of Cincinnati for two decades.

John Pennington says the Horton technique, when taught with an intention that students should mine their body’s capabilities like explorers, creates artists. “Philosophy of invention, imagination, and creation,” said Pennington. “Those were the pillars” for Horton. Pennington teaches at Pomona College.

Don Martin says that the Horton technique creates disciplined, passionate, purposeful human beings. Martin teaches at the Los Angeles County School for the Arts.

Ezra Ezzard, who studies in the Ailey/Fordham program, says that the technique “not only challenges me physically but challenges my brain.” Seeing the technique’s influence in Ailey’s Night Creatures, Streams, and Memoria, Ezzard likes knowing that he is following in the footsteps of powerful thinkers concerned with human rights.

Matthew Rushing, who has danced with the Ailey company for almost two decades, attributes his physical well being during the company’s non-stop touring to the Horton technique. On tour Rushing’s warm-up includes the coccyx study,” of which a rendition can be seen in “I Wanna Be Ready,” a section of Ailey’s Revelations. In the codified study, a person’s weight moves from an even distribution on the back and the legs to being entirely balanced on the coccyx (tailbone). This action—transitioning the body from a horizontal to a V shape—works the abdominal wall until it is pulses with fatigue.

* Beginning and ending each exercise in parallel to create muscular balance * Beginning class with flat backs, then primitive squats, laterals, leg swings, metatarsal presses, lunges and dimensional tonus (the yawn stretch) * In exercises where extreme stretches, sustained extensions or deep hinges are executed, large muscles—like the quads and the gluteus-may shake. Do not be alarmed; it’s normal! * After a sustained movement study, using a swing series or a rhythmic exercise to wake up the body and the mind * Never treating an exercise as though it is just for strengthening or limbering a body part. Using each exercise to explore its expressive qualities * Taking chances as the class progresses, but not diminishing the focus on precision work * Using improvisation to awaken individual dancers’ movement sensibilities

COMPANIES USING HORTON Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, the Joyce Trisler Dans-company, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Dallas Black Dance Theater, and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company.