Christina Bernal, 1945-2016

Christina Lynn Bernal, who founded the movement for liturgical dance in the United States and created a system to rehabilitate injured dancers, died of natural causes on December 31, 2016.

Born in San Francisco in 1945, Bernal became the youngest dancer to join San Francisco Ballet when she was 14 and a half. She was accompanied on tour by a chaperone who insured that the underage dancer completed homework sent from her high school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart.

Bernal's deep spirituality manifested at an early age. While studying at the Royal Ballet School in London she celebrated her eighteenth birthday and, against her parents' wishes, decided to join the Society of the Sacred Heart. After returning to California to perform in The Nutcracker, Bernal took her vows in 1966. The Sacred Heart order understood Bernal's great talent and allowed her to dance the psalms; she gained the support of the National Theology Convention, and went on to dance the Mass and found the movement for liturgical dance in the United States. In 1968, Time magazine dubbed Bernal "The Dancing Nun."

In 1970, Post Vatican II eliminated semi-cloistered orders. Encouraged by the great Rudolf Nureyev, Bernal went back to dancing. She married ballet dancer Laurence Matthews, whose contract with New York City Ballet took the couple to New York in 1974. Bernal began teaching in 1981 while continuing to perform until 1990 with Pennsylvania Ballet, Garden State Ballet, Stars of American Ballet, and others.

She developed her own teaching method, crediting her teachers who included Maggie Black (with whom she studied for 18 years), the Christensen brothers, George Balanchine, Vera Volkova, Winifred Edwards, Gisella Caccialanza and Ruby Asquith. Partnering with doctors and therapists associated with NYCB, Bernal created a system to rehabilitate injured dancers. Her method was so successful that she was the only non-medical panel member of the first Dance Medicine Seminar in New York.

Bernal taught daily ballet class in New York for 22 years, extending her reach to the professional ballet, contemporary and Broadway dance communities. When she and Matthews moved back to San Francisco in 2004, Bernal continued to guest teach in England, Germany, Norway and Sweden, where she led the Gotland International Dance Seminar for many summers. Her alums comprise a star-studded list which includes Ib Anderson, Alexandra Ansanelli, Homer Avila, Bridget Breiner, Maria Calegari, Simon Dow, Antonia Franceschi, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, Liz Gerring, Susan Jaffe, Tamiyo Kusakari, Pontus Lidberg, Lourdes Lopez, Jenny Nilson, Kathy Posin, Stephanie Saland, Keith Saunders, Edisa Weeks, and many more.

Throughout her life, Bernal remained deeply faithful, doing liturgical dance, working with nutrition, midwifery and spiritual practice. She told Time magazine that religious dance emphasizes the sacredness of the human body, saying, "Sacred dance is the unity of man in action before God. I am a community when I dance."

Bernal will be greatly missed by the community she created through dance, including her husband and the many dancers, including this writer, whose careers she rescued from injury.

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Photo by Ernest Gregory, Courtesy Fleming

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"When you're invited to dance with a jazz band, it's always assumed that, as a tap dancer, you're going to be a feature. If you go all the way back to New Orleans' Congo Square, and even before then, dance was a part of the music. I wanted to stick to those roots and create an album where everything was intertwined."

He recently spoke with Dance Magazine about his collaboration with von Kleist and the creation of their album.

January 2021