Ballet Firsts: Native American Prima Ballerina, Black Principal dancer, male dancer en pointe

Maria Tallchief: Native American Prima Ballerina, Kennedy Center Honor recipient, National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee, and GoogleDoodle. Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief was born January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Her father was a member of the Osage Nation. Her mother, Ruth Porter, had grown up very poor and was never able to take dancing lessons.

Maria Tallchief was considered America’s first major prima ballerina. She was the first Native American to hold the rank and is said to have revolutionized ballet. She moved to New York City to pursue ballet full time after graduating high school. She helped break down ethnic barriers in the world of dance and was one of the first American ballet stars in a field long dominated by Russian and European dancers.  She was selected as an understudy in the Ballet Russe, the premier Russian ballerina company in the United States. In 1942, when one of the lead ballerinas abruptly stepped down, Tallchief was called to stand in. 

In 1947, she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. After marrying choreographer George Balanchine she became prima ballerina of the New City Ballet. In 1960, she perform at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, making her the first American to do so. She performed for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower during “An American Pageant of the Arts,” on November 29, 1962. She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996. She was also honored by Google in a GoogleDoodle “Celebrating Maria Tallchief.”

Learn about two others breaking ballet barriers:

  • Misty Copeland became the first black ballerina to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.
  • Ashton Edwards, who always trained as a male dancer, started dancing en pointe after he became a member of the Pacific Northwest Baller’s Professional Division, a role that has been exclusively for women dancers.

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