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

A Reflection by Ling Ong on Studying with Islene Pinder


Balam’s volunteer advisor, Ling Ong, who learned the Balinese Masked Dance of the King from Islene Pinder, on how Islene influenced her as a scholar of Hindu-Buddhist Art.

Islene Pinder was the least likely American mermaid (before modern dance, Islene had performed synchronized swimming) to go to Bali and delve into the marvelous shimmer and vigor she had absorbed from a village troupe of dancers and gamelan musicians who had performed in New York City.  She returned to the city and started presenting traditional Balinese dances and choreography of her own at her loft space.  What she brought to the downtown scene was a physicality and aesthetic utterly divergent from the downtown avant-garde scene of the 1970s.  But her audience routinely packed the 1600 sq. ft. loft on Franklin Street in Tribeca. 

I will never forget Islene breaking down, on my behalf, the subtle movements of the Topeng Raja character.  Her Masked Dance of the King was the direct result of studious, respectful field work in the village of Mas, where she learned the stately movements directly from Breset.  He was the one and only Pak Breset who could transmit majestic authority with a flick of his finger and command obeisance through an electrifying full stop of his turning head.  Over and over again, we watched the 35 mm film she had taken of Pak Breset.    

After studying the film, Islene would lecture-demo endlessly to me, about the perfect angle of the rotating head and why that matters to the arm-hand dynamics, why the head movements must be just so in timing and dynamics for a dramatic presence amplifying the speechless dictates conveyed by fingers gesturing and the restrained power of the feet walking in dorsi-flexion.   The smallest, treasured detail she had absorbed in Bali was being transmitted to me.

As a young dancer, I barely understood the analytical depth of Islene’s instructions, for I had yet to learn about the Islene Pinder who was deeply connected to and influenced by Laban Movement Analysis.  She had worked very closely with Irmgard Bartenieff and Warren Lamb.  In fact, she and Irmgard had been reviewing Islene’s visual records of Balinese physicality; they were particularly fascinated by the sharply angled toes of a Balinese man, bare-handed and unshod feet in dorsi-flexion, climbing a coconut tree.

The most important lesson I learned in Islene’s loft was that fine, small, seemingly relaxed gestures are as difficult as bravura athleticism.  Delicate princess hands derive from the same sophisticated willpower regulating steely ballerina legs (see this instantly from a Florida snapshot of mermaid Islene lifted by a handsome bodybuilder, Balam’s January blogpost).  When in Bali, Islene was commended for her interpretations of Balinese men’s dance; her hands and feet had the appropriately masculine verve and strong vibration.  Back in New York City, with glossy nail polish on, she would exclaim, “this is not easy!” as she demonstrated for me the Bharatnatyam dancer’s arm and hand lengthened into a soigne gesture along the side of the body; it was the iconic Dola Hasta seen over and over again in other classical dance traditions of India and in the statues of Standing Parvati, the goddess who is the consort of Siva the Destroyer, the god who can dance to a sweet drumming rhythm. 

Breset on film, Islene in person, the Mask of the Balinese King, they were with me, 3 decades later, when I encountered a small bronze figurine from East Java of the late 10th C.E.   It is part of the Samuel Eilenberg collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Hindu friends say that it is about Brahma, 4 faces.  The museum has tentatively identified it as an Esoteric Buddhist deity who also has 2 pairs of arms evoking the dance.  To my knowledge, it has no definitive linkage to a royal patron or any religious documents.   Yet I immediately recognized the placement of the feet in lotus pose high up towards the femoral joint was the kinaesthesia of Iyengar Yoga that I had practiced.  Unfazed by time and geography—


Esoteric Buddhist Figurine from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Pak Breset himself gave me a private lesson and was duly impressed by the fundamentals Islene had transmitted to me—I simply began a dancer-ly movement analysis.  Learning the Balinese Topeng Raja had prepared to leap over the mysterious origin and simply believe in the recorded movement.

My research is far from over.  This Eilenberg figurine is a little over 4 inches tall and presents a host of intricate details.  The headdress, the jewelry, the positon of the other body parts, the facial expressions, all must be respectfully considered as part of the ancient movement teaching that I immediately feel as a way of sustaining meditation in seated lotus position.  As my Totemic Buddha, it transmits to me the  meditative kinaesthesia of ancient practitioners.