Dena Kinstlinger is an unintentional missionary. As the only shomer Shabbes [Sabbath observant] Jew in the entire New York City Ballet, the 21-year-old dancer often finds herself explaining the meaning of dietary laws and Sabbath observances to Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and even to other, less observant, Jews. “Because they may be unfamiliar with the reasons for what I do, we end up talking about them; there’s this ongoing dialogue about religion and faith when I’m around.”
Kinstlinger began studying dance at the age of four, in a local ballet school in Teaneck, NJ. It was clear from the start that she was gifted. When her family moved to the nearby town of Englewood where the ballet school was within walking distance, Kinstlinger began attending classes daily. At twelve, she was accepted by the prestigious School of American Ballet, training ground for the renowned New York City Ballet.
While she had attended a modern Orthodox yeshiva until the eighth grade (at her unconventional bat mitzvah she performed a dance she had choreographed), the demands of her ballet classes made her choose the Professional Children’s School for high school. But neither her Jewish studies nor her observances faltered; while in high school she took classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary and continued to observe the Sabbath scrupulously and keep kosher. Soon she was offered an apprenticeship to the Company and in 1991 became a full-fledged member of the corps de ballet.
A typical day for Kinstlinger includes a morning ballet class, several hours of rehearsal in the afternoon, and an evening performance. She is also working slowly towards her B.A., taking classes sometimes at Barnard, sometimes at Fordham, depending on what can squeeze into her full-time School of American Ballet schedule. Her eye, though, is primarily on her professional career—if things go well, a B.A. will not be that important.
Kinstlinger admits that occasionally difficulties arise because of her religious practices. Once she danced Balanchine’s Jewels in old point shoes—a very painful experience— rather than sew ribbons on a new pair on the Sabbath. Her colleagues have learned the nuances of being “Shabbes goyim” for her: they know that Kinstlinger is forbidden by Jewish law to ask directly for someone to turn on the dressing room lights for her on a Friday evening, and that she might say instead, “Gee, it’s getting kind of dark in here.”
Tours of the ballet company present challenges, too. When the company eats out, Kinstlinger practically goes into restaurant kitchens to see how the food is prepared. Back home with the company, she asks not to be cast during major Jewish holidays, and her requests are honored.
From the beginning, however, Kinstlinger accepted her “two worlds” as presenting positive challenges rather than obstacles. “Ballet and religious observance both require discipline; I learned about the former from the latter. In a sense, I feel that I’m living a paradox,” she continues. “I make all my own rules, yet I’m also very carefully following all the rules set forth for me, in Judaism and in ballet.”
“Many observant people would feel that dancing on the Sabbath [or wearing an immodest tutu] is a religious infraction, but I don’t. I feel that God gave me this talent to dance—this is God’s plan for me. I couldn’t be in this company if I refused to dance on Saturday, and if I wasn’t in this company it would be an injustice, both to me and to God’s will.”
One of three children raised in a modern Orthodox family. Kinstlinger describes herself as the most observant member. “My parents would support whatever I did,” she explains. “My observance is more to satisfy myself than them.”
Still, there were problems when she first began taking classes in Manhattan while living with her parents in New Jersey. How could she take the School of American Ballet’s required Saturday class and still remain observant? “Since I couldn’t use transportation on the Sabbath, I asked a classmate who lived right across the street from the school if I could sleep on the floor in her room,” remembers Kinstlinger. It turned out that the friend’s father was a Mormon bishop, and the whole family was extremely supportive and did everything they could to help her. “They bought paper plates so I could keep kosher, made sure I had the right food—they were wonderful.” More recently, she has taken to spending Shabbes with the Landownes, the family of her former teacher from the Jewish Theological Seminary, who happen to live near the theater.
If she’s not performing on a Friday night, Kinstlinger goes to shul either at Lincoln Square or at the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue on 70th Street and Central Park West, then she joins the Landownes for their Sabbath meal. If she is expected at the theater, she says the bracha [blessing] over the Sabbath candles that hang on her dressing table mirror, completes the performance, and walks back to the Landownes’ apartment for a late Shabbes supper. Saturday morning she wakes up much earlier than she would otherwise in order to pray again at shul, then to ballet class, followed by afternoon and evening performances. “It’s hard to keep going on so little sleep,” says Kinstlinger, “but I’m willing to do it because I want the Sabbath to remain a holy day for me.”
If there is a conflict between the life of the spirit and the life of the body, Kinstlinger doesn’t experience it that way. “I don’t see that I have to choose one over the other; I can combine the two into a way of life that works for me,” she says, sitting in a New York coffee shop and thoughtfully sipping her freshly squeezed orange juice. “I was destined to do this. I never felt that dancing was work; it was always pure joy.”