I’d been dancing since I was three years old when I begged my parents to put me in lessons. I never stopped. Now, I’ve followed my dream of a dance career all the way from my hometown of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to New York City. All my life, people have smiled and shaken their heads at me, sure that eventually I’ll give up dance and do something “practical.” I’m still dancing, and still proving them wrong – mostly because I love to dance but also because I’m stubborn.
On April 11, the dance world lost a true star. Maria Tallchief, the first Native American to become a principal dancer of a major ballet company, and one of America’s first great ballerinas, died at the age of 88. I have distinct memories from when I was very young of seeing performances that inspired me to dance: live, on video (VHS!), and on TV. One of these dances was famed choreographer George Balanchine’s The Firebird. I will never forget seeing it; I danced down the aisles of the grocery store for weeks afterward. Maria Tallchief originated that role, and as I learned more about dance, I came to idolize her.
It’s a strange and very sad thing to see one of your idols die. Maria Tallchief wasn’t just a dazzling dancer: she was a pioneering woman with unshakeable will, grace, and grit.
Tallchief was born on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Osage Indian and Tallchief spent her early years on an American Indian Reservation. When Tallchief’s father was young, oil was discovered on Osage land, bringing money and opportunity to the community. As a result, he became a powerful landowner and businessman.
When Tallchief was eight years old, her family moved to Los Angeles. However, she always remained associated with her home state. She became known as one of the “Oklahoma Indian ballerinas,” five ballet dancers of Indian heritage around the same age. In Los Angeles, Tallchief began studying dance with teacher Ernest Belcher, and later Bronislava Nijinska, a famous Russian dancer and choreographer.
Throughout her career, Tallchief spoke out against the discrimination and stereotypes faced by American Indians. She experienced this discrimination firsthand when her family moved to Los Angeles. Classmates teased her for her surname, which was originally Tall Chief, mocking her with whooping war cries and fake feather headdresses. When she embarked on her professional career, Tallchief combined her surname to avoid confusion, but refused to change it further. At the time, it was popular for American dancers to change their names to sound more Russian, as Russian ballet was considered the height of the artform. Friends encouraged Tallchief to change her name to Tallchieva, but she refused, citing pride in her heritage.
In 1942, Tallchief joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a touring company. She became a prominent soloist with the company, and met George Balanchine during her time there. When Balanchine struck out on his own to form the company that would become New York City Ballet, Tallchief went with him, and became one of the company’s stars. Balanchine created many roles for her, including Swan Queen in his version of Swan Lake and Dew Drop in his version of The Nutcracker.
Tallchief stayed with New York City Ballet until 1965, but took time off to dance with other companies, such as American Ballet Theater and a return to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She also played another legendary ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, in the movie Million Dollar Mermaid.
When Tallchief retired from performing, she moved to Chicago with her husband. There, she became artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet and founded the ballet school at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Tallchief received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to the performing arts in 1996, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
I’m too young to have ever seen Maria Tallchief perform live, but based on video, I can only imagine that she was exquisite. My favorite video is this one, the only video clip of Tallchief dancing Firebird.
Garnet is a student at Columbia University in New York City. She is “that person” who starts dancing at a party when everyone else is standing around, and if there were a Facebook stalking Olympics, she would be a gold medalist. She also loves cheesy 90s music, and almost died of happiness when Vanilla Ice retweeted her. Once. Follow her on Twitter @garnethenderson.