The image of Maria Tallchief, considered the country’s first prima ballerina, was put on the U.S. quarter this week. Born in 1925 in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, she got her start as a dancer in Colorado as a little girl.
In her 1997 autobiography, "Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina," she talked about starting her dancing career at the age of three at The Broadmoor hotel basement in Colorado Springs.
“Summers were hot in Oklahoma, and every July and August my parents drove to Colorado Springs, where Daddy played golf and Mother, Marjorie, and I played in the pool of the Broadmoor Hotel," she wrote. "When I was three, Mother took me for my first ballet lesson in the Broadmoor's basement. What I remember most is that the ballet teacher told me to stand straight and turn each of my feet out to the side, the first position. I couldn't believe it. But I did what I was told.”
She had a lengthy ballet career, even dancing in her 30s for John F. Kennedy. In videos of her dancing, like she did for JFK in the 1960s, her limbs are long and straight, and her posture is strong and proud.
On the coin that now bears her image, she looks the same way: passionate about dance.
She spoke about her passion in an interview in 1999, when she said, “I was such an apt pupil. .. they say ballet dancers must have tunnel vision. You don’t leave the studio and forget everything you’ve been taught. You say, ‘This is what I am going to do.’ You know why? Because it’s pure magic when it’s right.”
She is one of two dozen women of a range of ethnicities who were selected to be a part of a program by the U.S. Mint called American Women Quarters Program. Some of the others are Eleanor Roosevelt, Celia Cruz and Maya Angelou. The program began in 2022 and ends in 2025.
Tallchief being on the coin, which was released Oct. 23, is a source of pride for many.
“When I learned about Maria Tallchief, I was so thrilled to know that someone from a small city in Oklahoma, which is where my father also came from, was able to rise up and become a prima ballerina, and to really be a leader in the space,” said Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, who directed a documentary about Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee’s first woman leader, who was also elected to be on the quarter in the same program. “I started out my entertainment career many, many years ago as a dancer . . . It is a very strong physical discipline that combines so many different disciplines. And when I think that Maria Tallchief achieved the status of really being considered America's first prima ballerina . . .that is a huge achievement.”
Tallchief’s achievements include dancing in Russia, where she was asked to change her last name to Tallchieva – which she refused to do. Later, she started the Chicago Ballet. In 1996, she received a Kennedy Center honor. She died in 2013.
Maria Tallchief's Osage heritage is an important part of her story.
Her name means “Two standards,” according to Braxton Redeagle, head of language with the Osage Nation.
“‘Standard’ is a reference to an arched staff that was wrapped in [and] adorned with various things, including feathers,” explained Redeagle.
He said the tribe celebrated Tallchief’s name – which would have been just one word, rather than two in the tribe’s language. He added that her status as a selectee for the coin was celebrated last weekend on the reservation, where Oct. 29 was renamed “Maria and Marjorie Tallchief Day,” to honor not only Maria, but also her sister, a dancer as well.
“Maria Tallchief as an individual is a prominent Osage figure that the Osage community does take pride in,” said Redeagle, pointing to the barriers of racism against Native Americans that she overcame to achieve her status as a prima ballerina. “She was able to make a name for herself and . . . she represented Osage people in all of our excellence.”
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect what age Maria Tallchief was when she danced for President John F. Kennedy.
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