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Elizabeth Marie "Betty" Tallchief (Tall Chief)

Also Known As: "Ki He Kah Stah Tsa", "Wa-Xthe-Thomba", "Maria Chief"
Birthplace: Fairfax, Kansas City, Wyandotte County, Kansas, United States
Death: April 11, 2013 (88)
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Place of Burial: Quincy, Adams County, Illinois, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Joseph Alexander Tall Chief and Ruth Mary Tallchief
Wife of Henry D. Paschen Jr.
Ex-wife of George Balanchine and Elmourza "Elmo" Natirboff
Mother of Elise Paschen
Sister of Gerald Richard Tallchief and Marjorie Tall Chief
Half sister of Frances E. Roberts; Alexander Joseph Tallchief, Jr.; Thomas Tallchief and Rouk Tallchief

Occupation: Ballet Dancer
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Maria Tallchief

From my hero, Maria Tallchief

"Maria and her sister were enrolled at Beverly Vista School and it was here that she first felt discrimination because of her heritage. "Some of the students made fun of my last name, pretending they didn't understand if it was Tall or Chief. A few made war whoops whenever they saw me, and asked why I didn't wear feathers or if my father took scalps. After a while, they became accustomed to me, but the experience was painful. Eventually, I turned the spelling of my last name into one word. Everything in school was in strict alphabetical order and I wanted to avoid confusion."


Maria Tallchief (born January 24, 1925) was the first Native American to become prima ballerina. From 1942 to 1947 she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but she is even better known for her time with the New York City Ballet, from its founding in 1947 through 1965.

Early life

Her full name was Elizabeth Maria Tallchief; her family called her Betty Marie. She was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma to a father who was a chief in the Osage Nation and a Scots-Irish mother.

Of her childhood she wrote, "I was a good student and fit in at Sacred Heart (Catholic school). But in many ways, I was a typical Indian girl — shy, docile, introverted. I loved being outdoors and spent most of my time wandering around my big front yard, where there was an old swing and a garden. I'd also ramble around the grounds of our summer cottage hunting for arrowheads in the grass. Finding one made me shiver with excitement. Mostly, I longed to be in the pasture, running around where the horses were...".

She enjoyed music, dancing and ballet. Her desire to pursue a career in the arts constituted a considerably challenging dream for a Native American child in those days. The family moved to Beverly Hills, California in 1933, where she studied ballet with Bronislava Nijinska for five years. Madame Nijinska's philosophy of discipline made sense to Tallchief. "When you sleep, sleep like a ballerina. Even on the street waiting for the bus, stand like ballerina". Betty Marie continued to work hard and mastered technical skills well beyond her years. She got her inspipiration of ballet at a native American festival.

New York

Tallchief left Los Angeles at the age of 17 and auditioned in New York City. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and quickly rose to the status of featured soloist. At the suggestion of Agnes de Mille, she adopted the name Maria Tallchief.

Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine wrote several of his most famous works for her. The two were married on August 16, 1946; the marriage ended in 1952. They had no children. She was the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet from 1947 to 1960, where Balanchine was the principal choreographer. Her performance of Balanchine's The Firebird in 1949 and their earlier collaboration at the Paris Opera elevated Maria Tallchief onto the world stage. She also originated the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in Balanchine's version of The Nutcracker, in 1954.

Tallchief continued to dance with the New York City Ballet and with other groups until her retirement in 1965. With her sister Marjorie, she founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and served as its artistic director until 1987. From 1990 to present she has been artistic advisor to Von Heidecke’s Chicago Festival Ballet.

Personal life

After her marriage to Balanchine ended, she later married Henry "Buzz" Paschen, a Chicago builder, on June 3, 1956. The latter marriage lasted until his death in 2003. They had one daughter, Elise Paschen (born 1959), an award-winning poet who served as the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America from 1988 to 2001, and currently teaches in the writing program at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Maria Tallchief's younger sister, Marjorie Tallchief, also had a successful career as a ballet dancer and was for several years "première danseuse étoile" of the Paris Opera Ballet. She worked with her sister Maria many times over the years.


The Governor of Oklahoma honored her for her international achievements and her proud Native American identity.
Maria Tallchief was named Wa-Xthe-Thomba ("Woman of Two Worlds").
She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996 along with Johnny Cash, Jack Lemmon, Edward Albee, and Benny Carter.
In 1999 she was awarded the American National Medal of Arts by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington D.C.
On November 7, 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented a special tribute to Maria Tallchief titled "A Tribute to Ballet Great Maria Tallchief". During which Tallchief officially named Kenneth von Heidecke as her protégé.
Maria Tallchief is honored in Tulsa, Oklahoma, along with four other Native-American ballerinas (Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Marjorie Tallchief), with a larger than life-size bronze statue entitled "The Five Moons" in the garden of the Tulsa Historical Society, Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Tallchief is featured in a 1989 documentary, "Dancing for Mr. B".

Sandy and Yasu Osawa of Upstream Productions in Seattle, Washington made a documentary titled Maria Tallchief in November 2007, that was to be aired on PBS between 2007 and 2010.


Tallchief made a cameo appearance as Pavlova in the film Million Dollar Mermaid, starring Esther Williams. She also appears in the feature documentary Ballets Russes.


One of the premiere American ballerinas of all time, Maria Tallchief has been recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. She has said of her passion, "A ballerina takes steps given to her and makes them her own. Each individual brings something different to the same role."

Tallchief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation, and began ballet and piano lessons at the age of three. Her family soon relocated to California, where she began to devote more of her time to dancing. By the age of 12, she was studying with notable teacher Bronislava Nijinska, and upon her graduation from high school, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Over the next five years, Tallchief attracted much attention with memorable performances, particularly of the works of choreographer George Balanchine.

After marrying Balanchine in 1946, the couple left the Ballet Russe and moved to Paris, France, where Tallchief became the first American ballerina to debut at the Paris Opera. Soon after, Tallchief and Balanchine formed the Balanchine Ballet Society, now known as the New York City Ballet. At the ballet, Tallchief became the first American dancer to achieve the title of prima ballerina, a title she held for 18 years. Among her most significant roles were Symphomie Concatenate, Orpheus, The Firebird, Scotch Symphony, Caracole, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Following her retirement from ballet in 1965, Tallchief served as artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet (1975). In 1980, she founded the Chicago City Ballet, where she served as the artistic director until 1987. When the State of Oklahoma honored Tallchief in 1953, she was given the name of Wa-Xthe-Thomba, meaning "Woman of Two Worlds," a name that celebrates her international achievements as a prima ballerina and Native American. Tallchief was presented with a National Medal of the Arts award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999.

Tallchief's legendary artistic style and excellence continues to inspire dancers worldwide.

See also

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Maria Tallchief's Timeline

January 24, 1925
Fairfax, Kansas City, Wyandotte County, Kansas, United States
January 1959
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
April 11, 2013
Age 88
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, United States
Graceland Cemetery, Quincy, Adams County, Illinois, United States