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A Dancer Discovers the Satisfactions of Learning the Famously Demanding Horton Technique

Forsythe has taught Horton at AAADT since 1973 and continues to mine the technique daily for its legendary specificity and discipline. Photo by Nicole Tintle, courtesy of The Ailey School

Ana Marie Forsythe's eyes twinkle, and a smile plays at the corners of her mouth as she welcomes the 40-plus teachers who are enrolled for her two-week-long Horton teacher-training workshop at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater studios in New York City—plus me, a dancer and writer, taking part for the day. As we watch Genius on the Wrong Coast, a film about Lester Horton, the "princess of Horton" (as someone aptly refers to Forsythe) offers her own version of a director's commentary: She identifies faces as they appear onscreen and interjects her own narration ("Fortification 15—that's the one I hated so much," she says).


The people featured in the film—Ailey, Carmen de Lavallade, Joyce Trisler—are her former teachers and mentors, the ones from whom she learned about Horton and who encouraged her to take up residence at AAADT, where she's taught the technique since 1973, chairing the Horton department since 1979. Forsythe has more than half a century of Horton technique under her belt, and that is precisely why I am afraid: because the rest of this day is devoted to practicing the elements of Horton, a technique I have never studied.

I've heard about it, of course. Like any good student, I know my dance history. I know that Horton builds long and lean muscles, and I know that flat backs are a big thing, as are T shapes. But I find the technique intimidating—so many exercises, or "fortifications," to memorize, so much terminology, so many muscles to engage. So why am I game to try it? Because anyone would be crazy to pass up the opportunity to take Horton from Forsythe, who still mines it daily for the specificity and discipline she first discovered as a young dancer. As a teacher, she transcends the demands of the technique, making it an accessible movement study, rich in detail and context.

Forsythe conducts her annual Horton training for teachers. Photo by Nicole Tintle, courtesy of The Ailey School

"There should be some atmosphere to it. Look mysterious!"

I opt to observe the first movement class of the day. This ends up being a wise decision, as the teacher-training attendees move through the fortifications they've learned over the three days prior at lightning speed. They pause only when someone has a question about sequence or specifics, or when Forsythe needs to troubleshoot an exercise. She's constantly offering up tidbits of wisdom as she roves around the studio to tweak positions.

"Sometimes, you do have to adjust your position," she says, when an attendee struggles with release swings (moving from a flat-back position on one side of the body to the other, with a dipped swing of the torso). "Just be discreet. Don't forget—you can modify." During figure eights, which require hip isolations as the arms stay at right angles to the body, she urges the group to give their port de bras real weight. "Like you're resting something on your arms," she says. "This is from a film [that Horton choreographed], White Savage—you're coming out of the jungle, so there should be some atmosphere to it. Look mysterious!"

"Remember what the subtitle of this is?" she asks, as they prepare to complete dimensional tonus, a study that includes directional changes and long, head-to-toe stretches. "The yawn stretch!" her students respond. "That's exactly what you should be feeling," she reminds them. "Afterward, you should be completely toned." She pauses, the twinkle in her eyes still present. "Dimensionally, that is."

Horton is a fundamental of training at The Ailey School. Photo by Nicole Tintle, courtesy of The Ailey School

But Forsythe can be firm, too. When, near the end of class, she teaches an extended phrase on the right side that's a hodgepodge of movement from the fortifications and studies they've just completed, she leaves the dancers to figure out the left side on their own, on the spot. "Remember," she says, "I'll never show you the other side. That's your job, not mine."

"If you aren't physically or emotionally ready to fall, don't."

After a quick lunch break, it's time to learn new material—and I've officially decided to be brave and join in. Like the rest of the workshop participants, I keep paper and a pen nearby to jot down notes. We begin with fortification 11, which requires moving from a seated triangle position on the floor to a squat, second-position grand plié, standing position or jump into the air—depending on what part of the fortification you're on—in a single count. It is here that I experience my first beginner's success; I am lucky enough to have a long Achilles tendon, which makes the shift from the ground to the next position significantly easier. I beam as Forsythe praises my transition and Achilles and feel briefly confident that I am a natural.

This reverie is quickly upended by the next two exercises, lateral and back falls. As their names suggest, they involve falling directly to the ground either sideways or backwards, in far too few counts: first four, then two. Forsythe knows the bodies before her vary widely in age and ability. "If you aren't physically or emotionally ready to fall, don't," she warns. She understands the primary directive: that these men and women leave the workshop week with the knowledge needed to competently pass this technique on to their students.

By the end of class, I'm spending more and more time writing notes and less time attempting the movement. I can feel soreness already beginning to set into my quadriceps and lower back. I smell the unmistakable scent of Icy Hot, and I know I am in good company. I've gone on a long mental journey over the last several hours, I realize—at first, I found myself thinking there was no way I'd be able to do Horton, that I'd have to be superhuman to be successful at it. But I found myself surprised by own ability at the day's end. I suppose that's Forsythe's special gift.

The Conversation
Dance News
Carol Channing in the original 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! Photo by Eileen Darby, Courtesy DM Archives.

The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.

Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.

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Studio Owners
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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
Editor's List: The Goods
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Here at Dance Media, we think everyone's list of New Year's resolutions should include reading more 💁♀️. And aside from reading Dance Teacher magazine (which should, of course, be a resolution in and of itself), we recommend some seriously wonderful dancer memoirs.

Here are three interesting books we think you should check out (or re-check out) in 2019!

Share your favorite dancer memoirs in our comment section! We can't wait to hear what you're reading!

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Dance Teachers Trending

When it comes to Broadway, Becca Petersen does it all. Not only is she a swing learning multiple roles for Mean Girls on Broadway as well as understudy for the principal roles of Cady Heron and Regina George, but she also plays an administrative role as the assistant dance captain. When she's not onstage dancing one of the 10 different tracks she covers, or acting out two of Broadway's most notorious mean ladies, she's in the audience, taking notes in order to clean choreography in the next rehearsal. "Once the show opens and the creative team leaves, the dance captains, stage managers and associates keep things running," Petersen says. "I help teach choreography to newcomers when there is turnover and make sure the dancing looks good from day to day."

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Dancer Health
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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Joanne Chapman teaching turns (photo by Dan Boskovic, courtesy Joanne Chapman School of Dance)

Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Lauren Barry, courtesy of Diaz

When it comes to teaching Pre-K to fifth-graders, behavior issues are inevitable. Whether it's a child who wants to run around the room or a student who just flat-out refuses to follow instructions, knowing how to respond can be challenging. Compound that with the added obstacles of a K–12 school environment—where you may have an unusual dance space to teach in, limited class time or students who are just not interested in dance—and taking care of behavioral problems quickly and compassionately becomes even more essential.

Here, two Pre-K–5 teachers and one mental health professional offer their best strategies for dealing with four common behavior issues.

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Nathalia Arja in George Balanchine's "Emeralds." Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy of Miami City Ballet

Whether it's a wardrobe malfunction or a spectacular, opera-house–sized fail, onstage mistakes happen to everybody. See how these four professionals survived their worst mishaps—and what they took away from them.

Sterling Baca

Baca in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

"There I was on my very first day at the Metropolitan Opera House: on my hands and knees, center stage," recounts Pennsylvania Ballet principal Sterling Baca. He had joined American Ballet Theatre from the ABT Studio Company two weeks prior and didn't see a crucial casting sheet for the Don Quixote dress-tech rehearsal until minutes before it started.

In a domino-like sequence of unfortunate events, Baca had managed to get only half-dressed, and he missed his entrance and his character's dance with Kitri. Then he remembered too late that he was also supposed to catch Basilio's guitar. He turned around from setting down a tambourine to see the guitar already soaring through the air. He dove for it, but it grazed his fingertips, hit the floor and broke.

Baca had some literal and metaphorical pieces to pick up and apologies to make to the wardrobe and props departments, artistic staff and his fellow dancers. Luckily, everyone understood that he was new and "showed mercy," he says.

The Lesson: Although Baca can laugh about the incident now, he warns that "it only turns into a joke when you don't do it again." His advice? Double- and triple-check every single piece of paper on the call board.

Dance News
Photo by Natalie Fiol, courtesy of University of Illinois Dept. of Dance

This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1959, when the dance program was part of physical education, its head Margaret Erlanger invited Merce Cunningham for a four-month residency—the first of its kind on a university campus. Since then, U of I has been known for its vibrant dance programs, faculty, facility and innovation in the field. There is much to celebrate.

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Studio Owners

In December I attended Ballet West's Nutcracker in Salt Lake City. The show started about 15 minutes late, and during intermission one of the company's PR reps came to apologize. He let me know that the backstage/stage area was too cold, based on the union's rights, and that it had to warm up before the dancers could perform.

This idea really struck me. I hadn't thought much about the rights dancers had to a backstage that was warm. Having spent most of my life as a comp kid performing on concrete floors, it never occurred to me that I should protect my body from an environment that might be harmful to it. We just danced wherever we were told to.

Ever since that performance last month, I haven't been able to get the idea of union rights and studio kids out of my head. Every dancer, professional or not, deserves a safe space to perform. I reviewed union benefits for the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and the Actors' Equity Association (AEA), and determined a list of five rights I believe studio kids should be entitled to. I'm not advocating that they unionize, but, dance teachers, make sure you're taking care of your kiddos!!

Let us know in the comments on our Facebook page what you think about union rights and studio kids!

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Site Network
Photo by Jim Lafferty

It's a humid afternoon in New York City, and I'm sitting in a crowded restaurant on 29th Street and Seventh Avenue waiting to interview an artist I've admired since I first started dancing—this is a major fan-girl moment for me.

When Mia Michaels arrives, she enters with the kind of confidence and energy that makes people stop and take notice. She greets me with a warm hello and a tight hug. For an artist with a resumé like hers, I'm surprised by how easy she is to be with. "Do you mind if I get a coffee?" she says immediately. She's going to need it—after our interview, she'll rush directly to her cover photo shoot before teaching a master class at Broadway Dance Center this evening. Tomorrow, she'll be walking the New York Fashion Week runway for the Chromat fashion label, and later this week she'll be on a flight to Chicago for another master class, before finally heading to Tahiti for the first vacation she's had in months. "It's been a very intense year for me," she says.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Successful studio owners know that bringing in guest artists is a good idea, whether for a two-hour master class or a weekend spent choreographing recital or competition routines. Your students learn new styles, get exposed to different teaching approaches and have the chance to network with professionals. But it can be a challenge to bring in the guest you want—paying for airfare, lodging, meals, hourly teaching rates, choreography fees—while keeping your bottom line in the black. But there are ways to economize, if you're willing to think outside the box.

1. Go local. Can't afford to bring in Justin Bieber's biggest backup dancer? Ask a college professor or graduate student from your local university dance program. Or if you live within driving distance of a bigger city, take advantage of resources there to save on airfare and accommodations. "We're in Connecticut, so there are many cities close to us—New York City, Boston," says Gabby Sparks of Sparkle & Shine Dance. "I can find people you wouldn't imagine within a 30-minute drive."

2. Take advantage of downtime. Scheduling master classes during off-peak times—when an artist might be home for the holidays, for example, or during the summer, when the convention circuit cools down—could cut you a break in their fee.

3. Take it outside. Hold your master classes off-site to encourage students from other studios to drop in. By opening the class up to the general public and taking away the possible stigma of having to visit your studio's stomping grounds, you'll up your master-class enrollment. "Other kids just don't want to walk through your doors," says Christy Curtis of CC & Co Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Studio Owners who try TutuTix for their Spring 2019 recitals can get a $222 Visa Gift Card. Click here to learn more.

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