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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Maria Tallchief, America’s Prima Ballerina

January 24, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
Regarded as one of the greatest prima ballerinas ever produced in America, Maria Tallchief gained fame around the world for her exceptional talents, and helped pave the way for Native Americans in the world of dance.

Early Days

Maria Tallchief was born Betty Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a member of the Osage Indian tribe, and her mother was Scots-Irish. In 1933, her family moved to Los Angeles, and Tallchief fell in love with music and dance; she dreamed of becoming a star. Her mother wanted her to become a concert pianist, but Tallchief favored dance instead.

While on a family vacation to Colorado Springs, Tallchief took a ballet lesson. More ballet instruction followed over several years, and Tallchief was eventually led to instructor Bronislava Nijinska, who wanted Maria to eat, sleep and breathe ballet. “When you sleep, sleep like ballerina. Even on street waiting for bus, stand like ballerina,” Nijinska instructed her. 

Tallchief studied with Nijinska for five years before joining the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The company wanted her to change her name to something more Russian-sounding; she refused to deny her Osage heritage and compromised by calling herself Maria Tallchief instead. She became a soloist dancing in productions like “Scheherazade” and “Gaite Parisienne.” Tallchief and choreographer George Balanchine fell in love and married in 1946. For a few brief years (including a time after they divorced), he created roles specifically for her. Tallchief was Balanchine’s inspiration for several productions, including “Orpheus,” “Night Shadow,” “The Four Temperaments,” and “Scotch Symphony.” She and Balanchine helped to found what would become the New York City Ballet.

Notable Accomplishments

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Tallchief was considered “America’s ballerina.” President Eisenhower honored her as woman of the year in 1953. Her performances in “Orpheus,” and subsequent leads in “Firebird,” “Swan Lake,” and as the sugar plum fairy in “The Nutcracker,” helped solidify ballet’s place in the United States.

Tallchief’s role in “The Firebird” made her a prima ballerina, and it was the pinnacle of her career. She credited Balanchine with making her a star.
Watch Maria Tallchief dance in a short video, available on YouTube.

Tallchief’s achievements were also celebrated in her home state of Oklahoma in 1953; the Osage tribe gave her the honorary name “Wa-Xthe-Thomba,” which means “Woman of Two Worlds.”

In 1996, Tallchief was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The Rest of the Story

Tallchief married her second husband, Harry Paschen, in 1957, and took some time off from dancing after their daughter was born. She wasn’t gone long however, returning the New York City Ballet and filling a guest performer role with the American Ballet Theatre.

In 1965, Tallchief “surprised the world” and announced her retirement, according to the Kennedy Center. Wanting to pass her love for ballet to a younger generation, she became an artistic director and teacher for the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet. She co-founded the Chicago City Ballet and served as an artistic director. “A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own. Each individual brings something different to the same role," Tallchief once declared. “As an American, I believe in great individualism. That's the way I was brought up.”

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