Dance Legends: Maria Tallchief

Not everybody is a Firebird, just like not everybody is a Swan Queen, and not everybody is a Sugar Plum Fairy…  though I happened to be all three!

Maria Tallchief – Interview with Bruce Duffie

A few weeks ago I bought a daily calendar from the history channel. I like to buy my calendars after January 1 because that’s when they go on sale 🙂 I picked up one called 2019 This Day in Women’s History since I thought it would be a good way to learn more about the incredible accomplishments of women throughout history.

Maria Tallchief in a ceremonial headdress

On January 24, my calendar informed me that Maria Tallchief was born in 1925. I will begrudgingly admit that as much as I love dance, I am not very familiar with dance history. However I am sure those who are would instantly recognize her name. Maria Tallchief was a prolific American ballet dancer. She was born on the Osage Native American reservation and lived there for 8 years before her family moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of advanced performing arts training and opportunities. I was surprised! I had no idea that the first American prima ballerina was Native American.

After studying with several instructors when she was younger, Maria found mentorship under Bronislava Nijinska, a well-known choreographer and Russian ballet dancer. Maria received her big break after she was selected to be an understudy for the Ballet Russe. When one of the lead ballerinas was unavailable, she was asked to fill in and debuted in a lead role to much critical acclaim. Although it was clear Maria was very talented, she still encountered resistance initially due to her racial background both in the US and abroad. For example when she was in France, one review of her performance was titled “Peau Rouge danse a l’Opera pour le Roi de Suede” which translates to “Redskin dances at the Opera for the King of Sweden.CRINGE. There were many figures in her professional life who wanted her to change her name to be more Russian and less Native American. Apparently this was a relatively common practice for American dancers at the time. However Maria was very close to her family and heritage. As a compromise (suggested by Agnes de Mille), she made a slight modification going from Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief to Maria Tallchief.

Tallchief as Firebird

Maria found mastery in ballet under the tutelage of George Balanchine. She asserts that she fully understood ballet once she connected with him. Maria became his muse and they married in 1946 although by her account, it was not a very romantic relationship. When Balanchine formed Balanchine Ballet Society (now known as the New York City Ballet), she was right there with him. A few of Tallchief’s best-known roles under Balanchine are the Firebird and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, which they single handedly revived in the US.

Although their marriage was annulled after seven years, Maria and Balanchine still collaborated and worked together artistically. Maria had a prolific career dancing for several companies in the US, the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi Theater. After retiring from dancing, Maria became an instructor and founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981. In 1996, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center Honor. In 1999, Bill Clinton honored her with the National Medal of Arts Award, the highest award a civilian in the arts can receive.

When I learn piece of history like this, I am amazed at how early some of these women pioneers were able to attain success in their respective fields. I will definitely keep you posted on fun facts and historical figures I learn about from my calendar. Until next time!

An interview with Maria plus clips from Firebird

BONUS CONTENT from Jacob’s Pillow:


Chicago- Norwood, Arlisha. “Maria Tallchief.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017.
Dimuro, Gina. “Maria Tallchief: The Small-Town Native American Who Became America’s First Prima Ballerina.” All That’s Interesting. 2018.
Duffie, Bruse. “A Conversation Piece: Prima Ballerina Maria Tallchief.” 2006.
The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “Maria Tallchief.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2019.

One thought on “Dance Legends: Maria Tallchief

  1. Thanks Terica for your very informative piece on Maria Tallchief the first American Prima Ballerina, a Native American. She achieved mastery in ballet. Thank you for mentioning her roles in the Nutcracker and we hope that “next time” comes soon in your brilliant revelations in dance history.

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