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Maria Tallchief: The Original Sugar Plum Fairy

Woman Of The Month, December 2017

Quote from the Woman of the Month

“Above all, I wanted to be appreciated as a prima ballerina who happened to be a Native American, never as someone who was an American Indian ballerina."


Maria Tallchief

Books in J Drake Edens Library



"Though prima ballerina Maria Tallchief is most often associated with the Native American ancestry of her father, who was of the Osage tribe, she shares Irish background as well. Her mother, Ruth, was of Scottish and Irish descent. Tallchief describes her in her autobiography as a “true pioneer.” Part of that pioneering spirit must have been passed on to her daughters, Betty Marie and Marjorie. Both were interested in dance, and specifically in ballet, from a young age, at a time when that was not a common or easy career aspiration for young women from Native American tribes. Betty Marie, later Maria, was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and spent much of her young life there with her father’s people. Her mother, however, wanted to support and advance her daughters’ talents beyond what was available to them on the rural lands of the Osage tribe, and she spearheaded a family move to California, where the young ballerinas studied with Bronislava Nijinska. Maria adapted to the discipline required of a ballet dancer and began to show the grace, fire, and originality that would distinguish her work in later years. At 17, she auditioned in New York for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was accepted into the corps de ballet, supporting such world-renowned ballerinas as Alexandra Danilova as the company toured the world. Tallchief herself soon became a featured soloist with the company. Though she was barely in her early twenties, the power and individuality of her stage presence caught the eye and the imagination of famed choreographer George Balanchine.

Tallchief soon joined Balanchine’s company, the New York City Ballet. A master choreographer, Balanchine found in Tallchief a professional and, for a time, a personal partner for his vision. Tallchief’s interpretation of Balanchine’s choreography for The Firebird in 1949 allowed her talents to come full force to national and international attention and became a signature moment for both their careers. She also created the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine’s reinterpretation of the holiday ballet The Nutcracker. She also enthralled audiences with her performances in Swan Lake, Pas De Six, and Orpheus, among other works. The pair were married from 1946 to 1951, and Tallchief continued to dance with the company until 1960, when she joined the American Ballet Theater.

Her graceful moves, her subtlety and delicacy of interpretation, and her strong sense of self expressed through the classical strictures of professional ballet drew audiences to Tallchief’s work. The fact that she was not only an American prima ballerina at a time when that was not common, but also a Native American one at that, brought more attention to her work. In 1953 President Eisenhower named Tallchief Woman of the Year. That same year, she was also recognized by her native state Oklahoma as Wa-Xthe-Thomba, or “Woman of Two Worlds.”

Tallchief did not want to dance past her prime, and professional ballet is physically very demanding, so, in her early forties, she retired. She became a well-respected teacher and leader in the arts. She was artistic director and teacher at the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in the 1970s. With her sister Marjorie, who had also become a top ballerina, she founded the Chicago City Ballet and was its artistic director until 1987. Both Maria and Marjorie Tallchief were inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in recognition of their achievements. Tallchief remarried twice after her divorce from George Balanchine. With her third husband, Henry Paschen, she had a daughter, Elise, who became a poet. In 1996, Tallchief was given one of the highest artistic recognitions the United States gives its artists, the Kennedy Center Honors."


Dexter, K. (2008). Tallchief, Maria (1925-). In J. P. Byrne, P. Coleman, & J. King (Eds.), Ireland and the Americas: culture, politics, and history. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Retrieved from

Maria Tallchief Dancing and Coaching