Maria Tallchief – ’Prima Ballerina’

by, Jo Carol Hebert

Less than 100 years before ‘Elizabeth Marie ‘Betty’ Tall Chief’ was born, her ancestors were walking the ‘trail of tears’ that forced all Native Americans east of the Mississippi to leave their tribal lands. The Osage Indian Nation eventually settled and, fortunately, were able to buy 1.5 million acres of poor, parched lands in Oklahoma. 

Her great-grandfather, Chief Big Heart, wisely negotiated the deal with the U.S. government that gave the tribe the ‘rights to minerals’ that existed beneath the ground. Later, by great and astounding good fortune, oil was discovered on the lands and every Osage member was given a ‘headright’ to the profits. 

They became rich.

Early Years on the Reservation

“I was a typical Indian girl. . . I loved  the outdoors and spending my time wandering around my big front year where there was an old swing and a garden. I’d also ramble around, hunting for arrowheads in the grass.  Finding one made me shiver with excitement.  Mostly, I longed to be in the pasture, running around where the horses were.” – Maria Tallchief

Born in 1925 in the town of Fairfax, Oklahoma Osage County, her tribal name was ‘Ki He Kah Stah Tsa’. Her family called her ‘Betty’. She thought her father, a tall, important Osage member named Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, ’owned the town’. Her mother, a petite, “very determined” Scots-Irish woman would encourage her daughters to attain her own unfulfilled dreams of being a ‘performer’. Maria loved both music and dancing.

On the reservation, practices of tribal ceremonies were banned. But Betty’s father would take her to corners of the reservation for secret ‘pow-wows’, where she thrilled to the music and drama of authentic tribal dances. Then, women were not allowed to take part in the dance ceremonies.

First Ballet Lesson 

“From your first ‘plie’ (knee bend) you are learning to be an artist. In every sense of the word, you are poetry in motion.  And, if you are fortunate enough, you are the music.” – Maria Tallchief

Editor Note: Ballet is a form of dance that acts out a story with costumes, scenery, and music. Performers must have extensive training and athletic strength to be able to perform the techniques of ballet including feet turnouts, leg extensions, leaps, and turns. Qualified ballet dancers join a company that presents performances to the public.

In the basement of the Broadmoor Hotel in Fairfax, three-year old Betty thought it was odd to have to ‘turn her feet’ out to the side. But she was eager to please the adults, who delighted in their ‘prodigy’ (a child showing great talent at an early age). The teacher was negligent in her enthusiasm to show off her star student. She put her in ‘toe shoes’ (special ballet shoes where you dance on the ‘tip’ of your toes) at 5 years old, way too early for growing bones. 

Los Angeles, California

“Dance from your heart and love your music and your audience will love you.” – Maria Tallchief

When she was eight years old, the Tall Chief Family moved to California, where Betty and her younger sister, Marjorie, could get professional dance training. They enrolled at Mr. Belcher’s School of Ballet (father to famous dancer, Marge Champion).  Maria worked hard in his classes, where he set about correcting the previously ill-taught techniques. She also practiced piano in the mornings before school. After school, she practiced piano again and also went to ballet lessons.

Madame Bronislava Nijinska

Madame Bronislava Nijinska

“When you sleep, sleep like a ballerina. When you are waiting for a bus, stand like a ballerina.” – Nijinska

At the age of twelve, she had to choose between music or dance. She chose to dance and enrolled in the school of famous Russian ballerina, Madame Nijinska (sister of world famous male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky). For the next five years, she learned to mesh the heart and free spirit of her beloved heritage with the rigid techniques of ballet

New York City and the World

“If anything at all, perfection is finally attained, not when there is no long anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” – Maria Tallchief

At seventeen years she moved to New York to fulfill her dream to join the exclusive  touring company of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Encouraged to change her name to the more Russian-sounding – Tallcheiva, she refused. Instead, she chose her professional name to be Maria Tallchief.

Her combination of passion, energetic moves, athletic prowess, and extraordinary music/dance timing amazed the ‘old school’ world of ballet in Europe. She would go on to create a uniquely American style of ballet.

In spite of means, opportunity, and success, she endured constant criticism, ridicule and stereotyping of her Native American name. Chants, ‘whoop calls’, and cruel words – often due to envy of other dancers not getting her ‘lead’ roles – were hurled at her wherever she went. 

Back to New York 

“Maria Tallchief, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, is herself a creature of magic, dancing the seemingly impossible with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance, enchanting us with the radiance of her being . . .” George Balanchine

While with the Ballet Russe, she met George Balanchine, world-famous Russian choreographer (designer of performance steps in ballets). He became her mentor and  eventual husband. Russian ballet was beautiful, but rigid and precise. Ballet in America was not popular. He choreographed (wrote ballets) just for her extraordinary skills and techniques that no other dancer at that time could duplicate.

The Firebird ballet was one of the most notable pieces originally composed for Maria Tallchief. This dramatic theatrical drama perfectly presented her depths of passion and years of rigorous training as she flew across the stage in her red/orange ‘tutu’.  The whimsical part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker Suite ballet was another ‘signature’ piece always associated with her name. 

When Balanchine established the New York City Ballet, Maria was the first major American ‘Prima Ballerina’ (star dancer); a fitting title, for she was also the first Native American ‘Prima Ballerina’.  She danced in this ballet company for 18 years.

A Ballerina of the People

“New ideas are essential. But, we must retain respect for the art of ballet and that means the artist, too,or else, it is no longer an art form”. – Maria Tallchief

During this time, she also danced in Hollywood films starring Judy Garland and Esther Williams; accepted guest roles with the Ballet Russe and became the highest paid ballerina in the world, while also teaching young dancers. When the controversial dancer, Rudolph Nureyev left Russian, he chose Maria Tallchief to be his partner in his American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Later Years

“What’s important is that I’m working with very talented, young people. Maria Tallchief

In 1966, not wishing to dance past her ‘prime’, she retired from active dancing, but not from the world of ballet. She moved to Chicago and in 1970 became Artistic Director and Teacher of the Ballet School of the Lyric Opera. She established and directed the Chicago City Ballet in 1981. A young male dancer named Kenneth von Heidecke was mentored by Maria Tallchief as the successor to her continuing legacy of dance.

Did You Know?

  • She was the first American to dance with a Paris Opera Ballet in France in 1947
  • Her sister, Marjorie, became a world-famous ‘prima ballerina’
  • Her daughter, Elise Marie Paschen, is a Harvard-graduate and renowned poet
  • She was named Wa-Xthe-Thomba by the Osage people meaning ‘Woman of Two Worlds”

The Final Curtain Falls

“A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own.  Each individual brings something different to the same role.  As an American, I believe in great individualism. That’ the way I was brought up.” – Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief died, due to complications of surgery for a broken hip.

She left behind her a blazing trail for every child that ever said: “When I grow up, I want to be a ballerina.”

Celebrating Our American Prima Ballerina

“Maria Tallchief and American ballet came of age in the same moment. Her story will always be the story of ballet conquering America.” -The New Yorker”

‘Maria Tallchief Day’, Oklahoma Legislation, June 29, 1953.

Included in the ‘Flight of Spirit’ mural of 5 Native American ballerinas in Oklahoma Capitol Building Great Rotunda, 1991.

Included in ‘The‘Five Moons’, bronze life-size statues of 5 Native American ballerinas, Tulsa Historical Society, Oklahoma.

Awarded Kennedy Center Honors, 1996 (“Maria Tallchief was both the inspiration and the living expression of the best (the United States) has given the world. Her individualism and her genius came together to create one of the most vital and beautiful chapters in the history of American dance.”

Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1996.

National Medal of Arts Presentation for Lifetime Contribution, 1999.

Metropolitan Museum of  Arts Tribute, 2006. 

Chicago History Museum, 2011.

Native American Hall of Fame, 2018.

“Google Doodle” made in her honor, 2020!

We hope you enjoyed reading about Maria Tallchief.  When you hear music, do you want to jump up and dance? Maybe you are a dancer. You can practice with music for fun or take lessons to learn combinations of ballet steps to perform.

Here is a book for young readers: Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, by Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells.

Categories: Biographies, History

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