Women’s History Month Dance Spotlight: Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief (Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief)

This month we pay tribute to acclaimed ballet dancer and teacher Marie Tallchief, who lived from Jan. 24, 1925 – Apr. 13, 2013.

Maria Tallchief was born on an Indian Reservation with the Osage tribal lands covering hundreds of miles including the land now known as Fairfax, Oklahoma.  Tallchief was born of Native American and Scottish-Irish decent.  Her mother who married into the Tall Chief family strongly believed in education and instilled this in Tallchief and her other daughter.  The Osage tribe found oil on its lands and Tallchief’s father acquired a large share of money due to this.  Her mother wanted them to not rely heavily on their father’s wealth and instilled a work ethic.

Notable Dance Career

Maria Tallchief took dance lessons from a young age.  By 8 years old the whole family moved to California to find dance opportunities for Tallchief.  Opportunities were hard to find so Tallchief continued throughout high school studying different genres of dance and ultimately decided on Ballet.  Tallchief moved to New York City to pursue a ballet career when she was 17 years old.

In 1942, Tallchief joined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlos, the Russian ballet touring company based in New York City.  The company itself earned bragging rights due to bringing The Nutcracker to the United States for the first time.  Tallchief first rose to fame in this company when the lead of a performance had to step down and Tallchief was the understudy.  From then on she was a dancer to be aware of and danced leads in famous performances.

In 1947, Tallchief moved on to the New York City Ballet.  Tallchief performed in many ballets including OrpheusThe FirebirdSwan Lake, and The Nutcracker along with many others. She became one of the first prima ballerinas in the United States when at the time ballet was taken over by Russian dancers.

Native American Pride and her Fight to Preserve her Heritage

Maria Tallchief was proud of her heritage.  Throughout her career companies and friends pressured Maria Tallchief to change her name.  Russians dominated the industry at this time, and it was quite popular for Americans to change their names to a Russian-sounding last name.  Some peers thought she would be discriminated against if she didn’t change her name.  One associate even suggested that her last name would actually be easy to change to “Tallchieva.”  Tallchief refused to let go of her Osage heritage.  The only compromise she made was turning “Tall Chief” to “Tallchief” and adopted a variation of her middle name as her first name.

Her connections to Chicago

In 1965, Tallchief retired from stage work and instead moved to Chicago.  In the community, she was known as a teacher, founder, and director.  She founded the Ballet School of the Lyric Opera of Chicago with her sister, taught Balanchine technique there,  and served as the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet.  She is the face of hard work, perseverance, and cultural pride. Tallchief died in Chicago on April 11, 2013 at the age of 88 years old.


Here is a look at when Maria Tallchief performed for President John F. Kennedy


Additional Resources:

Maria Tallchief | National Women’s History Museum

Maria Tallchief, ballet star who was inspiration for Balanchine, dies at 88 – The Washington Post

From the Archive: Maria Tallchief | WTTW Chicago

Maria Tallchief | American dancer | Britannica

Tallchief, Elizabeth Maria | The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (okhistory.org)

Maria Tallchief dead at 88 – Chicago Tribune

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