Lester Horton
Lester Horton was an American dancer, choreographer, and teacher
A teacher or schoolteacher is a person who provides education for pupils and students . The role of teacher is often formal and ongoing, carried out at a school or other place of formal education. In many countries, a person who wishes to become a teacher must first obtain specified professional...


Early years

Lester Iradell Horton was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 23, 1906. His parents were Iradell Horton and Pollyanna Horton.

His interest in dance was stimulated by his fascination with the American Indian after watching tribal dances in a Wild West show. He studied the Iroquois and Red River Indians, and Penobscot and Ojibway tribes.

He studied ballet for two years with Mme. Theo Hewes in Indianapolis. At that time he also took classes at the Herron Art Institute and worked with the Indianapolis Little Theater.

Seeing a performance of the Denishawn company had a great impact on him.

Horton arrived in California in 1929 to perform The Song of Hiawatha at the Argus Bowl in Eagle Rock, CA.

He took a job with the Stuberghs, with whom he remained close for his lifetime. They produced wax figures and Horton painted faces on the window mannequins.

He chose to work in California instead of New York City, which was considered the center of modern dance at the time.


Horton formed his first dance company, the Lester Horton Dancers, in 1932. That company evolved into what was briefly known as the Lester Horton California Ballets (1934) and then the Horton Dance Group (1934). The Horton Dance Group, billed in its film appearances as the Lester Horton Dancers, lasted until early 1944. Later, Horton attempted to develop a company on the East Coast for dancer Sonia Shaw, but Shaw's husband stopped underwriting the venture and the company collapsed before it could give any public performances. After a brief hiatus, Horton formed the Dance Theater of Los Angeles with his longtime leading dancer, Bella Lewitzky; their partnership ended when Lewitzky left in 1950. Horton's final company continued until 1960 under the direction of Frank Eng.

In order to finance his school and various dance companies, Horton choreographed a number of early Hollywood musicals, beginning with Moonlight in Havana (1942). Most of the films, like the Maria Montez
María Montez
María Montez was a Dominican-born motion picture actress who gained fame and popularity in the 1940s as an exotic beauty starring in a series of filmed-in-Technicolor costume adventure films. Her screen image was that of a hot-blooded Latin seductress, dressed in fanciful costumes and sparkling...

 vehicle White Savage (1943), were B-movie musicals; the most notable was Arthur Lubin's Phantom of the Opera
Phantom of the Opera (1943 film)
Phantom of the Opera is a 1943 Universal horror film starring Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster and Claude Rains, directed by Arthur Lubin, and filmed in Technicolor. The original music score was composed by Edward Ward....

(1943). Horton's dancers also frequently worked at clubs, including the Folies Bergère in New York and Earl Carroll Theatre
Earl Carroll Theatre
Earl Carroll Theatre was the name of two important theaters owned by Broadway impresario and showman Earl Carroll. One was located on Broadway in New York City and the other on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, California.-Broadway:...

 and Restaurant in Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...

. Horton's best-known works, which he called "choreodramas," are Salome (which occupied Horton for nearly two decades) and The Beloved.

Dance Theater made only one appearance in New York, during the last year of Horton's life. The troupe was scheduled to perform at the reputation-making theater of the Young Men's and young Women's Hebrew Association on East Ninety-second street in New York City. Upon arriving the troupe discovered the venue did not provide publicity and so the performance was largely unknown and not well attended. Only about 300 people showed for the Saturday night performance and only about 200 tickets were sold for the Sunday matinee. This netted the company a total of 100 dollars. All but one of the reviews was good. One magazine praised the "superb dancers" but complained that "one technical and effective stunt follows another with hardly ever any sustained choreographic continuity." There was not enough money to return home to New York and Horton had doubts about the company's financial ability to attend Jacob's Pillow
Jacob's Pillow
Jacob’s Pillow Dance is a dance center, school and performance space located in Becket, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. The organization is known for the oldest internationally acclaimed summer dance festival in the United States. The facility also includes a professional school and extensive...

 later that summer. Horton's agent wired Horton the money to get the troupe home. At the time, Horton was drinking heavily and was emotionally and physically ill. Upon returning to Los Angeles he moved into a house on Mulholland Drive where he was attended to by his parents and friends.

Determined to perform at the Jacob's Pillow festival, the group travelled the Berkshires by car. The show was a success, though Horton could not afford to accompany the troupe to the festival. Riding on their success at the festival, the troupe was asked to open for Johnny Desmond
Johnny Desmond
Johnny Desmond , born Giovanni Alfredo De Simone, was a popular American singer.-Early years:...

 in the Fall; they were so popular that they were invited back for another two-week engagement. Horton died of a heart attack at his home on November 2, 1953.

Since Horton's death, his dance technique and choreography have become widely known and practiced. Horton's legacy has survived through the Lester Horton Dance Theater Foundation, Inc.www.lhdt.org, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting Horton's contributions as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Also, various dance companies such as the Joyce Trisler Danscompany focus on Horton's technique."

Horton choreographed the following films:
  • Moonlight in Havana 1942 (Universal-International)
  • Rhythm of the Islands 1943 (Universal-International)
  • White Savage 1943 (Universal-International)
  • Phantom of the Opera 1943 (Universal-International)
  • Climax 1944 (Universal-International)
  • Salome Where She Danced 1945 (Universal-International)
  • That Night With You 1945 (Universal-International)
  • Frisco Sal 1945 (Universal-International)
  • Shady Lady 1945 (Universal-International)
  • Tangier 1946 (Universal-International)
  • Siren of Atlantis 1948 (United Artists Release)
  • Bagdad 1949 (Universal-International)
  • South Sea Woman 1953 (Warner Brothers)
  • 3-D Follies 1953 (R.K.O)

Horton trained a number of significant mid-twentieth century dancers:
  • Alvin Ailey
    Alvin Ailey
    Alvin Ailey, Jr. was an American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and revolutionizing African-American participation in 20th century concert dance...

  • Eleanor Brooks
  • Janet Collins
    Janet Collins
    Janet Collins was a ballet dancer and choreographer.Janet Collins was one of the few classically trained Black dancers of her generation. In 1951 she won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for her work in Cole Porter's Out of This World...

  • Rudi Gernreich
    Rudi Gernreich
    Rudi Gernreich was a Austrian-born American fashion designer and gay activist.-Biography:Born in Vienna, Gernreich fled Austria at age 16 due to Nazism, and later migrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles, California...

  • Carmen de Lavallade
    Carmen De Lavallade
    Carmen De Lavallade is a dancer, choreographer, professor and stage and film actress.-Early Years:Carmen De Lavallade was born in Los Angeles on March 6, 1931, to Afro-Creole parents from New Orleans, Louisiana. She was raised by her aunt who owned one of the first African American history...

  • Bella Lewitzky
    Bella Lewitzky
    Bella Lewitzky was a modern dance choreographer and noted teacher....

  • James Mitchell
    James Mitchell (actor)
    James Mitchell was an American actor and dancer. Although he is best known to television audiences as Palmer Cortlandt on the soap opera All My Children , theatre and dance historians remember him as one of Agnes de Mille's leading dancers...

  • Carl Ratcliff
  • Jeri Faubion Salkin
  • Joyce Trisler
  • James Truitte
  • William Dale Jennings
    William Dale Jennings
    William Dale Jennings was an American LGBT rights activist, playwright and author.-Early life:Jennings was born in Amarillo, Texas, the son of William Arthur Jennings and Charlotte Sophia Knebel Jennings...

Other figures who emerged from Horton's school and company include actress Lelia Goldoni
Lelia Goldoni
Lelia Goldoni is an American actress who appeared in a number of motion pictures and television shows starting in the late-1940s, beginning with uncredited cameo roles in Joseph L...

 and Sondra Kerr Blake. The founder of the Mattachine Society, Harry Hay
Harry Hay
Henry "Harry" Hay, Jr. was a labor advocate, teacher and early leader in the American LGBT rights movement. He is known for his roles in helping to found several gay organizations, including the Mattachine Society, the first sustained gay rights group in the United States.Hay was exposed early in...

, had a daughter who took classes at the dance theater.

Personal Life and Relationships

Horton was involved with William Bowne from 1932 to 1949 when Bowne left Horton to marry a former member of Horton's dance company, Portia Woodbury (Bowne). Not long after, Horton became involved with film and theater writer Frank Eng. Eng was with Horton until his death in 1953.


Horton developed his own approach to dance that incorporated diverse elements including Native American Folk Dance, Japanese arm gestures, Javanese and Balinese isolations for the upper body, particularly the eyes, head and hands. Horton also included Afro-Caribbean elements, like hip circles.
Horton's dance technique, which is now commonly known as Horton Technique, has no style, per se. The technique emphasizes a whole body, anatomical approach to dance that includes flexibility, strength, coordination and body and spatial awareness to enable unrestricted, dramatic freedom of expression.

"I am sincerely trying now to create a dance technique based entirely upon corrective exercises, created with a knowledge of human anatomy; a technique which will correct physical faults and prepare a dancer for any type of dancing he may wish to follow; a technique having all the basic movements which govern the actions of the body; combined with a knowledge of the origin of movement and a sense of artistic design."
-Lester Horton, in a letter to Dorathi Bock Pierre, "From Primitive to Modern," American Dancer (October 1937)

Further reading

  • Barnes, Clive. Genius on the Wrong Coast, New York Times, 1967.
  • Bizot, Richard. "Lester Horton’s “Salome” 1934-1953 and after." Dance Research Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1984) pp. 35–40.
  • Dinerman, Diana. The Horton Technique, Bourgeon Journal of Dance, Volume 2 #3, pp. 28–30.
  • Foulkes, Julia L., Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • Murphy, Jacqueline Shae. The People Never Stopped Dancing: Native American Modern Dance Histories. Journal of Folklore Research Press, 2007.
  • Perces, Marjorie B., Forsythe, Ana Marie, Bell, Cheryl.Dance Technique of Lester Horton Princeton Book Company, 1992.
  • Prevots, Naima. Dancing in the Sun: Hollywood Choreographers 1915-1937. University of Michigan Research Press, 1987.
  • Warren, Larry. Lester Horton: Modern Dance Pioneer. New York: Dance Horizons, 1977.
  • Dance Perspectives 31 (Autumn 1967) is entirely devoted to Horton.
  • Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
  • Genius on the Wrong Coast (video recording), Lelia Goldoni, distributed by Green River Road, 1993.
  • Camera Three Tribute to Lester Horton (video recording), 1963.

External links

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