Danced into History: Maria Tallchief Quarter Release

October 23, 2023
Black and white portrait image Maria Tallchief
Maria Tallchief as pictured on the February 1954 front cover of Dance Magazine. Image via Wikimedia (ThaddeusB).

Today the U.S. Mint released a quarter featuring prima ballerina and author Maria Tallchief (Osage). This is the tenth coin in the American Women Quarters™ Program. Already-issued quarters for 2023 feature pilot Bessie Coleman, teacher Edith Kanakaʻole, stateswoman Eleanor Roosevelt, and journalist Jovita Idar. 

From 2022 through 2025, the U.S. Mint will release new quarters each year featuring American women who changed the nation and the world. Next year, additional coins will feature civil rights activist the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray and Patsy Takemoto Mink, among others.

Staff members at the Smithsonian American Women's History Museum are excited to help bring this series to life with the U.S. Mint and the National Women's History Museum.  

We invite you to explore Tallchiefʻs life and legacy.

Black and white photo of Maria Tallchief doing ballet with a partner in a dance studio
Portrait of Maria Tallchief by Philippe Halsman, 1956. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution NPG.2004.43); gift of Steve Bello in memory of Jane Halsman Bello. © Philippe Halsman Archive
Image

Ballerina Maria Tallchief (1925-2013, Osage) is now being celebrated by the U. S. Mint in not just one, but two new coins. Tallchief is an honoree in the American Women Quarter series, released into circulation today. In addition, Oklahoma’s “Five Moons,” five American Indian ballerinas from Oklahoma (including Tallchief and her sister Marjorie) are featured on the 2023 Native American $1 coin.  

Tallchief’s athletic but sensitive performances in the late 1940s and ‘50s are often credited with making the refined European art form of ballet popular in the United States. She became a superstar with her debut of the title role in Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird in 1949, which brought the dance company led by her husband George Balanchine to world attention. Maria Tallchief appears on the reverse of the quarter in a fully extended leap, wearing the costume from her first Firebird performances in 1949. (Edith Lutyens, the costume designer, created a pared-down version of a design by Marc Chagall with a traditional tutu.) Her Osage name, Wa-Xthe-Thoṉba, translates to “Two Standards” and is also on the reverse in Osage writing.

Elizabeth Marie "Betty" Tall Chief was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma, on Osage land, in 1923. Her father came from two influential families, the Tall Chiefs and the Big Hearts. An oil boom brought the tribe great prosperity but also great heartache. When Betty Marie was eight, her non-Indian mother relocated her and her younger sister to California. Her mother sought better training for her daughters' emerging artistic gifts. (Betty Marie was also a talented pianist.) The sisters learned from ballerina Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the world-famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

Betty Marie's performances attracted attention. After she graduated from Beverly Hills High School, she moved to New York City. There she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Company management wanted to give her a Russified performing name, like Tallchiefskaya. She resisted. She agreed to be billed as Maria Tallchief, as she soon became known worldwide. At Ballet Russe, she became a protégé of the great choreographer George Balanchine. He fell in love with her and proposed marriage. (Balanchine married and divorced several of his dancers.) In 1946, Tallchief became the first star of Balanchine's own company. His company evolved into today's New York City Ballet.

By many accounts, Tallchief's breakout performance in composer Igor Stravinsky's Firebird was a sensation. Some say her performance put the new company on the cultural map. She also helped expand the audience for Balanchine's long-standing collaboration with Stravinsky. One critic said her performance in the folktale-inspired ballet was "Sharp, exotic, sensuous, tender." Tallchief remembered that the applause made the hall "sound like a football stadium." In a biography of Tallchief, the Anishinaabe writer Heid E. Erdrich argues that Maria drew inspiration for the role from Osage traditions. This "magical creature, half bird and half woman," wrote Erdrich, "was a difficult part to dance but Maria remembered the stories her grandmother had told her about a time when spirit birds spoke to the Osage. Maria tried to capture the feeling of this magic in her performance." 

As the original Sugar Plum Fairy, she helped make Balanchine’s Nutcracker into a seasonal institution. Tallchief continued as America's leading ballerina into the 1960s, even after leaving Balanchine in a friendly divorce.  She wanted children, but he didn't. She retired as a dancer in 1966 and moved to Chicago with her husband Henry Paschen. She raised one daughter, Elise, and promoted ballet in Chicago. Tallchief founded the ballet school at the Lyric Opera in 1974, then served as director of the Chicago City Ballet from 1981-87. She co-wrote an autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, which was published in 1997. Widely honored, she died in 2013 at the age of 88.
 

James Ring Adams is a Senior Historian at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He is managing editor of American Indian magazine.