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Lester Horton

In the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Lester Horton developed a modern 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 for stage and film, 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, 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.”

Alvin Ailey studied with Horton and became a member of his company.  When Horton died unexpectedly in 1953, Mr. Ailey temporarily took over leadership for the next year before moving to New York. In 1958, he launched Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with other dancers from the Horton company including Carmen de Lavallade, Joyce Trisler, and James Truitte.

Horton’s legacy continues to be felt in the dance world but it is perhaps most visible today in Mr. Ailey’s work. Horton technique is the foundation for many of Ailey's masterpieces including:

Members of the general public can study Horton technique as part of the Ailey Extension program:

Students who train at The Ailey School also learn the Horton technique. 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.

“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.” 

Read more about Horton technique in this Dance Spirit magazine feature story.

View photos of people around the world doing one of Lester Horton's most iconic movements, the 'lateral T'