America’s Prima Ballerina: Maria Tallchief, Osage - CSPM

America’s Prima Ballerina: Maria Tallchief, Osage

Leah Davis Witherow, Curator of History

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to recognize the ongoing economic, cultural, political, and historic contributions of Indigenous residents in the Pikes Peak region. It is our pleasure to share with you the story of Maria Tallchief, Osage, America’s first internationally renowned prima ballerina. This year, Maria Tallchief is celebrated on the American Women Quarter series, and is one of Oklahoma’s “Five Moons,” five Native American ballerinas featured on the Native American $1 coin.

Maria was born Elizabeth Marie “Betty” Tallchief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax Oklahoma on Osage Land. Her father Alexander was a member of the Osage Tribe and came from two influential families, the Tall Chiefs and the Big Hearts. Maria’s mother Ruth had Scots-Irish heritage and grew up poor. Ruth dreamed of becoming a dancer herself, but did not have the means to take dance lessons. An oil boom brought great wealth to the Osage in the early twentieth century, and the Tallchief family enjoyed vacationing at the Broadmoor Hotel to escape the oppressive heat of Oklahoma summers. There her father played golf while Maria, younger sister Marjorie, and their mother Ruth enjoyed the Broadmoor’s pool.

In her autobiography, Maria described how her dancing career began in the basement of the Broadmoor Hotel, “When I was three, Mother took me for my first ballet lesson in the Broadmoor’s basement. What I remember most is that the ballet teacher told me to stand straight and turn each of my feet out to the side, the first position. I couldn’t believe it. But I did what I was told.” Unbelievably, the unidentified teacher put Maria in pointe shoes at age 3! Nevertheless, both Tallchief girls loved to dance and excelled at it. After graduating high school, Maria moved to New York City and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1947, she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet, and in 1960 was the first American to perform at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

While dancing at Ballet Russe, she became the muse of choreographer George Balanchine who fell madly in love with her. The pair married in 1946 and Tallchief became the star of the new Ballet Society, later renamed the New York City Ballet. Her performance in the title role of the Classic Russian ballet Firebird in 1949 made her an international star. One critic described her performance this way, “…she preened, she shimmered, she glorified in speed an airy freedom.” Despite separating in 1952, Tallchief and Balanchine continued to collaborate for years.

After her retirement from dancing, Maria and her sister Marjorie opened Chicago City Ballet. Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996 and received a Kennedy Center Honor the same year. Maria Tallchief died at the age of 88 in 2013. Remarking on Maria Tallchief’s many accomplishments, Braxton Redeagle, head of language with the Osage Nation stated, “…she represented Osage people in all of our excellence.”

Photo Above: Maria Tallchief. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Steve Bello in memory of Jane Halsman Bello.

Leah Davis Witherow, Curator of History

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