The Hard Work of Acceptance

Maria Tallchief was born in Oklahoma as a member of the Osage Nation. Her family was a dominant force among the Osage Nation as a result of her great-grandfather’s work in negotiating for oil revenues on the Osage Reservation.

Marie’s mother always dreamed of being a dancer, but could not afford the lessons. She embed the love of dance in her daughters. At age 5, Maria began to take ballet lessons. When Marie was 8, the family moved to Los Angeles with the hope that the children would get roles in musicals. It was a clerk in a drug store who set Marie on her life’s journey. He recommended a dance teacher who gave her a proper grounding in ballet.

When she was 12, Marie began working with a choreographer who instilled in her the discipline to eventually become a prima ballerina. After a number of disappointments in not getting roles she desired, Marie moved to New York City to see if she would have better success. While she did get accepted into a dance troupe, she was resented by the Russian ballerinas who viewed her as inferior. This was a time when ballet was very restricted to Russian and European dancers. It was even suggested that she change her last name to Tallchieva to make it sound more like a ballerina name. She refused but did change her first name from Marie to Maria.

Maria started getting roles in ballet and some notice by the press. What was the next turning point was when she met legendary choreographer, George Balanchine. At first she was devastated when he told her she need to relearn one of the basic ballet exercises. Overcoming her disappointment, Maria started over. In the process, she turned her greatest weakness as a ballerina into a strength.

From that moment on, Maria’s career skyrocketed. Working with Balanchine, she revolutionized ballet. She was the first American to perform with Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre, overcoming the earlier prejudice against American dancers. She transformed little known ballets such as The Nutcracker into favorites of audiences.

For all of Maria’s success on stage, her role in changing the face of ballet was just as important. She opened up ballet to dancers of all races and creed. She fought against the stereotypes associated with her Native American heritage. Just imagine the personal hope and spirit it must take to break through the barriers which have been long standing. Fate and sponsors are critical, but it’s the drive and discipline in a person that is ultimately the critical factor in going from an outcast to the top of one’s chosen career. How might we increase the capacity for individuals to achieve beyond all expectations?

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“No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius.” – Anna Pavlova (Ballet prime ballerina)

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