All non-profit organizations have a difficult time in these profit-ravenous times, but the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has a hidden weapon: Its thriving Ailey Extension Program, which offers classes in more than 30 different dance techniques — Zumba, ballet, Capoeira, hip hop, samba, Horton, tap, jazz and Bhangra among them — to the public in about 80 classes a week.
Prices are reasonable — $17 per 60 or 90 minute class, (with volume discounts available) and instruction is taught by some of the top teachers in NYC.
Renee Robinson, the longest tenured (and now retired) dancer in Ailey history, and reknowned dancers Madame Gabriela Darvash and Hope Boykin have all helmed classes or workshops at the extension.
The Extension Program, which is open to anyone who wants to go, “matches our mission,” explained Lisa Johnson-Willingham, Ailey Extension director. Ailey believed “that dance comes from the people and should be delivered back to the people,” which the Extension classes help to do.
Willingham dances around the topic of what degree the Extension program helps to defray costs, but acknowledges that the 300 people a day who receive instruction in the spacious studios helps to support the company.
Esther Hsiang, 23, who lives in Midtown, was first exposed tothe Horton technique at Harvard, and continued to take classes even after landing a job as a strategy consultant in NYC. Horton, she said, makes her body feel “long and limber.”
“It makes your body very strong,” she continued. “And the type of strength it gives you translates well to all types of dance.”
But can a non-dancer hack the rigors of an Ailey class?
Recently, this reporter took an Extension class in the Horton technique — taught, coincidentally, by Willingham — to find out. Originated by Lester Horton, who was adored by Alvin Ailey, the Horton technique is evident in many of Ailey’s choreographed works, most markedly “Revelations.” Designed to fortify, lengthen and strengthen the body through a series of “corrective” isolations and movements, Horton is rhythm-enriched, less mannered than ballet and incorporates dance elements from many different cultures.
About 50 people of astonishingly different levels of ability showed up to stretch, move and eventually learn a set of increasingly challenging combinations, all performed to soothing rhythms produced by a seated drummer. The vibe was distinctly friendly and welcoming, with the less adept and nervous clustering in the back as the Horton regulars and more practiced dancers took positions in front, closer to the mirrors.
Willingham jocularly guided us through a series of fairly manageable ballet positions and “Egyptian arms,” “T” positions, “table top flat back,” squats, swings and lunges. The rhythmic, dynamic moves, with transitions much like those in yoga, became progressively more difficult. Holding a squat while on tiptoe put my muscles in a mercy-begging mood. Just as the Pilates-like floor work was giving me new insight into the inadequacies of my abdominal strength, we were given a rest before instruction in some briskly performed combinations. That is where the real dancers and Horton devotees broke away from the pack, leaving the pikers (hello, again!) in their wake.
But it also felt okay to suck. The class may be at a world reknowned center for professional dancers, but snobby “dance world” airs were absent. Neophytes commiserated with each other, cracking jokes, and were reassured by veterans. And yes, I emerged feeling terrific: stronger, taller and more limber.
If you’re just starting out:
Consider the introductory offer (two classes for $25) to sample classes and figure out where you belong level-wise.
Don’t sweat the dress. People wear everything from ballet leotards to shorts and dress shirts. Just dress to move comfortably and make sure to check the required footwear. Most people in Horton were barefoot.
Show up early. It takes a few minutes to check in and there’s almost always a line. Classes may be be crowded, so you should stake out some prime floor space.