Louis Horst

Louis Horst The musician who molded modern dance

Though Louis Horst was a musician and never studied dance, his influence on dance is far-reaching. He pushed Martha Graham to create her own choreographic stamp, just as he did for many of her contemporaries, like Doris Humphrey and Agnes de Mille. Horst also created some of the first literature on dance criticism and theory in his monthly journal Dance Observer.

But little in Horst’s early life would point to his future in modern dance. Growing up, he trained as a musician on piano and violin, and after leaving home at 16, he often played for casinos, brothels and silent movie theaters.

In 1915, he took a two-week job as musical director for the fledgling Denishawn Dance Company on tour in San Francisco—and ended up staying with the company for 10 years. But it was Graham’s arrival in 1916 that really kept Horst with Denishawn for so long. He was immediately drawn to her talent and vision, and they became lovers. When Graham left in 1925 to strike out on her own in New York City, he did, too. He devoted himself to championing Graham’s work.

Horst’s influence also stretched to dance criticism and the classroom. He co-founded the journal Dance Observer in 1934 to give American modern dance a voice in arts journalism. He served as chief critic and editor until his death. At Martha Hill’s invitation, he taught dance composition and a music-for-dancers class at The Bennington School of the Dance, which eventually became the American Dance Festival. In the classroom, Horst could be intimidating, bordering on cruel, but dancers considered his courses a rite of passage. Hill later hired him to teach composition at Juilliard in 1951, which he did until his death in 1964 at the age of 80. DT

Horst with Ruth St. Denis

The Work

Horst composed 11 pieces of music for Graham’s works. With one exception, the dance always came before the music. Horst thought of the score as the setting for the dance.

Frontier (1935) Horst structured this simple melody for piano in theme and variations. For her solo, Graham was inspired by the landscape of the West she’d seen when traveling on tour across the U.S.

Primitive Mysteries (1931) Graham wanted to imitate Native American dance, so Horst mimicked Native American music, using the flute and oboe. He wanted the score to feel like the chief’s chant at the start of a ceremonial dance.

El Penitente (1940) This was the last of 11 scores Horst created for Graham, and it was the only one composed before the dance was made. During Horst’s arrangement for piano, flute and clarinet, Graham partnered with two men, Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham.

 

Style

Horst taught two dance composition courses: pre-classic forms and modern forms. He encouraged his students to apply music principles to choreography: He favored A-B-A form as the quintessential dance structure and believed principles of music harmony and counterpoint should be used to create movement. His classes were legendary for his caustic wit (he referred to Graham as “Mirthless Martha” and Agnes de Mille as “Agony Agnes”), and more than one student fled his classroom crying.

 

Horst with Max

Fun Facts

When choreographer Paul Taylor presented his first concert in 1957—titled Seven New Dances—one piece featured him standing still for four minutes and 33 seconds (the length of John Cage’s accompanying and silent score). Horst famously responded with four inches of blank space, followed by his initials, in his Dance Observer column.

Horst’s pet dachshund, Max, accompanied him nearly everywhere. After Max died, he adopted another dachshund: Spud.

 

The Legacy Lives On

Horst was a guide, musician, coach or composition teacher (and sometimes all four at once) to modern dance luminaries: Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Agnes de Mille, Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Lucinda Childs, Martha Clarke, Meredith Monk and many others. In the 1960s, when the Judson Dance Theater–era postmodernists began rejecting formality in favor of pedestrian movement, Horst’s choreographic methods became less popular. But his influence on the shape of American modern dance is unmistakable.

 

Resources:

“Louis Horst: The musician who shaped modern dance,” by Neil Ellis Orts, Dance Teacher, February 2010

“The Music Man of Modern Dance: Louis Horst,” by Walter Sorell, Dance Magazine, December 1984

Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer’s World, by Janet Mansfield Soares, Duke University Press, 1992

“You call me Louis, not Mr Horst,” by Dorothy Madden, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996

 

Both photos (top) courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; photo by Nina Fonaroff, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

 

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending
Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.


Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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