Life in the Box: A Native Ballerina

June, 2024

When you hear the name Maria Tallchief, and find out that an image of her is enshrined on a U.S. quarter, what does your inner eye imagine? A woman with long black braids, sitting in a fire circle, maybe with eagle feathers? Okay, I’ve taken that stereotype a bit too far to make a point, but anyway, would the first image in your mind be a ballerina swooping through the air?

My eyes were opened when I clicked on Maria’s name and found out she was an amazing, world-renown ballerina, the first American to dance in the Bolshoi Theater in Russia, the original Sugar Plum Fairy in the revitalized Nutcracker in 1954, the first American ballerina to perform in the Paris Opera Ballet, and a headliner throughout her American career, from 1942 through the late 1960s.

It’s really sad that I never heard about her until this year. Apparently, I’m the only one. Her biography is all over the airwaves, the internet, magazines, and newspapers of her time. And she lived up until 2013, so her life isn’t ancient history.

In doing my research, I was gratified to see video clips of her dancing, and there’s a television video that aired on PBS in 2007, still available on DVD. I’ve included links, below.

Many of these biographies emphasize her marriage to and creative collaboration with George Balanchine, who we all know as a famous choreographer.

I looked at his biography at the New York City Ballet, and was miffed to find that Maria wasn’t mentioned in his life summary. Then, I found out that he had four different wives, all short marriages, three of whom were ballerinas, and I was somewhat mollified. But, really, the newspaper obituaries for Maria call her “Balanchine’s Muse,” and such like. Maybe Balanchine’s obituary should have read, “Tallchief’s Muse.”

Maria’s life work was ballet, ballet, ballet. You name the ballet theater company, she’s been there, performed there, or even established it! Her talent was described as “revolutionizing ballet,” and displaying “athleticism, speed, and aggressive dancing like nothing before her.”

So, how did she get from the Fairfax, Oklahoma, Osage Reservation to the big city life? Give credit to her mother, who wished to be a dancer but couldn’t afford it. Maria’s mother got her two daughters into dance lessons as soon as possible, age 3 for Maria. The young family could afford the lessons. It turns out Maria’s father was a wealthy oil tycoon!

Let’s go back a bit, Maria’s birth name was Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, born in 1925 on the reservation. Her father, Alex, was a Plains Indian, and her mother, Ruth, was Scots/Irish. Because the tribe discovered oil on their land, Alex and his family had all the accoutrements of the newly rich, including summers in Colorado Springs, dance and music lessons, and the ability to go where they wanted. When Maria was 8, the family moved to Hollywood, and the lessons continued.

That’s where Maria started mixing with America’s finest ballet teachers and choreographers, including Bronislava Nijinska who Maria called, “the personification of what ballet was all about.” By the time she had graduated from Beverly Hills High School, Maria was able to make her way in New York City, into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she eventually met George Balanchine. By the way, she had two additional marriages, the last one to Chicago construction tycoon, Henry “Buzz” Paschen, with whom she had a daughter in 1959.

Of interest, her daughter, Elise Paschen, is well known in poetry circles, and has been the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America. Elise has published a book of poetry about her mother, too, so it comes “full circle” (get the connection to the image on a quarter? Nudge, nudge.) 

Introducing the public to remarkable women is the purpose of the U.S. mint’s series of quarters. Call me impressed and happy to have found this important dancer!

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site. She’s now showing photos on Smug Mug.  

American Women Quarters Program – Maria’s page

 Film of her in Kennedy Center Performance 1962 (President Kennedy in audience) 5:32

A clip of her dancing an excerpt from The Firebird

A clip of her dancing Sylvia Pas de Deux

 Her biography from 2007 PBS documentary – DVD available

Other “Quarter Women” profiles on Escape into Life

Jovita Idar

Bessie Coleman

Poetry book about Maria by her daughter


One response to “Life in the Box: A Native Ballerina”

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