Robin Gilbert and Carlos Fittante in "Tigerlily and the Dragonfly". Photo: Julie Lemberger

Balinese Dance Pioneer, Choreographer & Lehman College Professor Islene Pinder Dies at 83

By Carlos Fittante

Islene Pinder, BALAM Dance Theatre’s (BALAM) founding director, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on June 17, 2012. Ms. Pinder’s memorial service was held on Tuesday, June 19 at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York City, and she was laid to rest at the New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, New York.
Born Islene Gassman in Hoboken, New Jersey, Pinder lived a life of dance, study and creativity. Combining her love of movement and intellectual curiosity, she was a mentor and master teacher to dancers and artists throughout the world. A dance lover from childhood, she studied with a galaxy of New York dance luminaries, such as Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm, José Limon, Walter Nicks and Luigi.

A professor of dance at Lehman College for nearly three decades, she received a B.A. from New York University and a M.A. from Teachers College Columbia University. Further education included certification in Effort-Shape, a system of movement pattern analysis from the Dance Notation Bureau, and intensive studies with her mentor, Dr. Judith Kestenberg, originator of the Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP), a psycho-analytical system of movement analysis that Pinder used as a tool for teaching, movement analysis and choreography throughout her career. Before settling into her life of dance education and choreography, she worked briefly as a performance-synchronized swimmer in Florida and a print model.

Lifelong Attraction to Bali
After being riveted by a touring troupe of Balinese dancers and musicians performing at The City Center in New York, Pinder embarked on a cultural study on her first trip to Bali in 1974, before the amenities of running water, electricity and paved roads. In Bali, she studied with several prominent master teachers, including Bapak Kakul and I. Made Jimat from Batuan, Tutur from Petulu Ubud and A. A. Gde Breset from Mas Ubud, Agung Rai and others.

Although physically petite and always the elegant lady, she excelled in the challenging male dance roles of Baris (warrior), as well as the masked roles of the demonic trickster, Jauk, and the refined Dalem (king) characters. Two years later, she undertook a 12-month sabbatical to live and study in Bali. During this life-changing visit, she became the adoptive godmother to Balinese child dancer, A. A. Gde Anom Putra (Anom), whose mother died during Pinder’s stay on the island.

Their deep spiritual bond and Pinder’s infinite love and appreciation of Balinese dance and culture would bring her back to Bali every summer for the rest of her life. When in Bali, she lived at Anom’s family compound, assuming the role of the matriarch to the family. In 1989, Anom married Ayu Sukmawati and together they founded the acclaimed gamelan ensemble, Sanggar Semara Ratih of Ubud, with the constant encouragement, artistic stimulation and patronage of Nyang York (grandmother of New York), as Pinder was affectionately called.

Balinese Life, Dance Documented
For 37 years, Pinder documented on film and video some of Bali’s greatest dancers, as well as captured many of the daily rituals and important festivals from the culture. Anom’s family included, guided and provided her access to the Balinese experience from an insider’s perspective. Pinder’s movement analyst eye drew her attention to many unique and meaningful moments as a cultural anthropologist, rooted in a body-movement perspective. Her own physical understanding of Balinese dance gave her deep insight and she single handedly compiled a comprehensive library of Balinese life and dance, culminating in the 45-minute video documentary, Isle of Bali, which she created specifically to be used for educational purposes in the West.

In 1979, she founded the non-profit, New York based dance company, BALAM Dance Theatre, where she remained its director throughout her lifetime. Pinder established BALAM to bring the beauty and detailed skills of Balinese dance to the greater New York community and to explore the fusion of Balinese and contemporary dance styles. Some of her enduring choreographic works include Night Shadow-A Balinese Dream, Vision of Sound, Bird Jauk, Gods Through a Temple, Memory, Fragrance and Pity to mention a few. Her eclectic vision received critical praise from the media, receiving notable reviews in the New York Times, Dance Magazine, Village Voice, Bali Post and many others.

In 1987, BALAM toured Brazil and brought the beauty and elegance of traditional Balinese dance and new works from the company’s repertory to schools and studios. Five years later, she welcomed BALAM’s co-artistic director, dancer and choreographer, Carlos Fittante. Together they created BALAM’s celebrated signature work, Ramayana-Abduction of Sita, thrilling audiences in the United States and Indonesia.

As a professor of dance at Lehman College, she developed Pinder fundamentals, a systematized teaching method for the instruction of Balinese dance to Western students that is the primary training technique for BALAM’s company members. She received numerous research awards from the PSC-CUNY Research Award Program for her groundbreaking study of Movement Patterns Seen in Balinese Mothers and Babies and Balinese Dance using the Kestenberg Movement Profile, and she also co-authored numerous articles on Balinese cultural, dance and movement patterns. Pinder was also an invited guest lecturer on Balinese dance and culture at several colleges and museums.

Pinder Returns to the Stage in Bali
Uder Pinder’s directorship, BALAM and the Semara Ratih collaborated many times touring throughout the remote villages of Bali. A highlight of this artistic collaboration was BALAM’s participation in the Second International Dance Festival at Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia (STSI) Indonesian: College of the Performing Arts in Denpasar, Bali, where the two companies performed joint programs of traditional Balinese music created by the Sanggar Semara Ratih and groundbreaking dance fusion works by BALAM. During BALAM’s Bali Tour 2010 of the remote villages on the island, Pinder returned to the stage and performed in the comedic masked work, Harlequin’s Charade, with original gamelan music composed by I Ketut Carter, musical director of the Sanggar Semara Ratih.

BALAM was Islene Pinder’s passion. The company, now led by Artistic Director Carlos Fittante, will continue her legacy with new works exploring contemporary and world dance fusion. A commemorative performance is under development, as well as planning a return tour to Bali to allow Pinder’s Balinese family to honor her spirit in the customary ceremonies and performances in her name.

Survivors include her sister, Annette Michaels, cousin, Ron Boden, and their families. Her family requests that contributions in her memory be sent to BALAM Dance Theatre, 319 West 18th St, Apt 4C, New York, NY 10011.

For further information, call 646-361-9183 or visit BALAM Dance Theatre on the web at Stay updated about the company's new work, events, activities and announcements at

Photos (top to bottom)
1) Islene Pinder in 2003. Photo Credit: Julie Lemberger

2) Islene Pinder takes a bow after BALAM Dance Theatre’s well-received performance of Ramayana-Abduction of Sita at the 30th Annual Downtown Dance Festival 2011 in New York City. Photo Credit: Eric Bandiero

3) During Bali Tour 2010, Islene Pinder rehearses Harlequin’s Charade in preparation of her return to the stage. Photo Credit: Glen Chickering