How I teach Horton Technique

The Manhattan skyline is the perfect backdrop for Troy Powell’s Advanced Beginner Horton Technique class at Alvin Ailey studios. The parallel and perpendicular lines of skyscrapers and apartment towers seen from the windows of the fifth-floor studio mirror the shapes every student in the crowded room is striving for. Hinges lean back, flat backs reach forward, lateral tilts strive for length and arms extend with “elbows nice and lifted” and “energy out of the fingertips.” The exercises progress steadily in tempo from eight-count phrases to four counts to eventually two and sometimes one. With a knowing smile and elegant carriage, Powell calls out counts and encouragement for his difficult and continuous warm-up. He seems to feel the synchronicity of these two grids at his very core. “Horton would say that this is a very parallel technique,” he says. “Ailey put it in his choreography because of the beautiful shapes—like this view—and because it has dimension, form and life.”

Powell, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and director of Ailey II, has developed a following among the adults of this Ailey Extension class. He attributes the popularity to the most obvious by-product of training in the Horton technique: strength building. “Physically, your body grows, you get stronger, whether you are a professional or just starting out,” he says. Lester Horton, Alvin Ailey’s mentor, developed the technique to realign the body and prepare it for any style of dance. The core muscles are constantly being engaged eccentrically as the torso moves away from the legs. Balances on one leg use all the stabilizing muscles surrounding the joints of the hip, knee and ankle. Dancers will want to give in to their flexibility when they move into extended lateral positions (some of which resemble an arabesque), but Powell insists that “the architecture of the technique demands energy from the fingertips to the toes to create long lines and right angles.”

He acknowledges the difficulty of getting the positions right, but cautions his students not to overanalyze it. As they struggle with rising up to demi-pointe at the end of a lateral balance, he is lighthearted. “It’s just a test, no big deal, don’t be dramatic,” he says. Powell offers such seemingly impossible challenges to help the dancers push themselves and gain confidence.

While the challenging physicality of the technique is certainly part of the draw, it is also hard not to observe the positive energy and morale Powell brings to the room. He is unflappable about latecomers rushing in from work. He asks foreign students where they hail from and invites a husband peering in the window to come into the room to observe. He even poses for a photo with the man’s wife mid-correction.

After working a long combination across the floor several times to the right, Powell asks the perspiring, out-of-breath dancers, “Should we try the other side? Of course! That wasn’t really a question.” Symmetry, after all, is just another reassuring part of the form. DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.


Troy Powell’s is an Ailey prodigy story. He was recruited through a kids’ program and brought to The Ailey School at age 9 as a scholarship student. In addition to studying and mastering Horton technique, he studied Graham technique at the school. After graduating from The High School of Performing Arts, he briefly joined Ailey II before moving into the main company. He danced in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 10 years before becoming artistic director of Ailey II. During his time with the company, Revelations (he credits his many years of Horton with helping him conquer it), The Stack-Up and Suite Otis were among his favorite ballets to perform. While leading the second company and teaching in The Ailey School, Powell has also made time to choreograph concert and commercial dance for companies and programs such as Dallas Black Dance Theatre and “Sesame Street.”


Model: Shay Bland, 23, dancer with Ailey II


Photography by Kyle Froman

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