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DSC00865She “made us move bigger than we actually were, with a courage and physical confidence we didn’t yet possess,” wrote Jennifer Homans in a recent tribute to the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, who died in 2013. Maria Tallchief: what a graceful name for the daughter of an Osage chief who grew into a dancer known all over the world for her long-limbed, dazzling, powerful presence. My own memory of Maria Tallchief is not of her on stage—I was never so lucky—but of the sound of her name as spoken by my mom. She said it gratefully, joyfully and with wonder: as in, can you imagine how thrilling it was for me to see Maria Tallchief on stage in Butte, Montana? How lucky I felt?

I think she saw Tallchief in Swan Lake. It must have been the late 1940s, when my mother was in high school. Butte, her hometown, was in a pretty happy mood then: World War II had brought Butte’s copper mines—a vast honeycomb underneath what had been known before the Depression as the “richest hill on earth”—back to life. My grandparents bought their first house, a tiny bungalow down on the flats with a stamp of a yard where you could coax a little grass and a few trees to grow: paradise, after a dozen years in the treeless tenements uptown.

The Depression had been very hard on Butte, and on my mother’s family. And so this ballerina, whose talent was to be bold, strong, courageous, to exude confidence from her outstretched arms and atop her pointed toes; who wasn’t a hothouse flower of the east but a daughter of an Oklahoma tribe—no wonder she made my mom and all of Butte, Montana swoon.

We memoir writers like to imagine such scenes. It’s a way of understanding something about our parents’ past—which is our past, too. Because when you hear your mother or your father talk about the events that shaped their young lives, you absorb their truths. For my mom, the truth of Maria Tallchief was this: Seeing a beautiful dancer dance to beautiful music is a gift beyond description, a way of lifting your spirit beyond daily life to somewhere else, some other realm. This is what matters about art. This is what is worth remembering.

As a child, you take note of what memories make your mother’s eyes light up. You file it somewhere; you understand that if you should ever get a chance to see ballet, you will do so, and you’ll do it with reverence.

As an adult, you remember your mothers’ shining eyes as you stare at the New York Times Magazine’s stunning photo of Tallchief in a 1948 performance of George Balanchine’s Orpheus. You long to call your mom and hear the story again, but your mom is long gone, and so you go down the rabbit hole of the Internet and find nothing about Tallchief’s performance in the late 1940s in Butte, Montana. Did it happen? Are you remembering wrong? Perhaps your mom saw Tallchief in the late 1950s in Seattle, or on the Ed Sullivan show in the early 1960s.

But the truth remains, a truth that transcends remembered or forgotten facts. You grew up with a mother who treasured encounters with transcendent beauty, and so you too learned to treasure such encounters.

And this is why the Times’ Lives they Lived” issue of the magazine, which comes out at the very end of every year, is such a rich reading experience. An ode to Maria Tallchief moved me to remember my mom and to write. For you, it might be the photo of James Gandolfini’s Cadillac. Or the tributes to Abigail Van Buren, Joyce Brothers, JJ Cale. Or you might find that the story of someone you’ve never heard of—87-year-old marathon runner Joy Johnson, for example—lifts you out of your everyday life for a few minutes, like a ballerina on a stage in Butte, Montana did for my mother, more than sixty years ago.


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28 thoughts on “Tallchief

  1. From the rabbit hole of my brain came a memory of reading a book about Maria Tallchief when I was a child. Thanks for helping those long lost artifacts bubble to the surface.

  2. Jeanette Murphy on said:

    The elegant Maria Tallchief danced on our Butte stage. Wow! That reality sparks imagination and amazement that a ballerina of such notoriety would be booked to dance in Butte, MT. I grew up in Butte and danced in New York City. Your blog entry made me wish I was around for the event. It had to be breathtaking. Thank you.

  3. I danced myself for 20 years (just studying at a studio and doing the competition circuit) and now take a recreational Irish class. It’s very nice to read about how dance touches the lives of others. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Reblogged this on You are Creative and commented:
    A fellow blogger’s memories get awakened when reading about a ballerina her mother saw on stage in the 40s.

  5. “Maria Tallchief” is something that was only in my brain as the answer to a random Jeopardy question, and I think the only reason I remembered it is because she does, indeed, have a “graceful name.” Thank you for giving me something much richer to associate to her name and legacy than a mere trivia question.

  6. This is funny, I was a security guard at Harod in Boca Raton. There they had a private school where the study of dance took place. One of the people on staff. Maria Tallchief. She came only rarely but I did see her.

  7. My wife, who danced since the age of 4, and still takes ballet classes, remembers hearing something about Maria Tallchief. I, on the other hand, am intrigued by this dancer because of my own Native American heritage. Thanks for sharing this story. By the way, congratulations on being “Freshly Pressed.”

  8. Reblogged this on staciesutter and commented:

  9. alice3357 on said:

    Reblogged this on Alice and commented:
    Words from heart…

  10. Memories……

  11. burgessellis on said:

    Wow.. have known of Maria Tallchief, have poured over photos, read about her, but this blog made her very real.. Thank you for sharing….

  12. burgessellis on said:

    Reblogged this on Arty T Shirts – Wearable Art and commented:
    A legend lives

  13. willowmarie on said:

    She’s one of my heroes/ role models. Her work really influenced how I approached choreography. Lovely to see her remembered here. Thank u.

  14. Really inspiring!! Liked it very much 😉 Positive and shiny! Peace

  15. Beautiful memory

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  17. I’ve never heard of her. Thank you for bringing her to my attention.

  18. Thank you for sharing this about Maria and your mother.

  19. Reading this helps me remember my own mother’s strength!

  20. Thank you for rekindling my memory of Maria Tallchief. I enjoyed many yars of ballet class and learned initially from my mother, who often spoke of her beauty and grace as an important icon of her day. A true legend.

  21. I’m a ballet dancer- so honored and humbled to read this. Beautiful writing. I can only hope to have that sort of impact from the stage!

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