Defying Gravity with Prima Ballerina Maria Tallchief — by Deborah Levine

Maria Tallchief, international ballet superstar, inspired the ballerina in those of my generation caught up in the Dance Fantasy. Like gambling fever, the Dance can be all-consuming, easily contracted and a life-long passion.  I caught dancing fever at first sight,  growing up in Bermuda. I stared, open-mouthed when the square dance caller yelled ‘allemande right’ and my older brother Joe and his friends flew around the circle formation. “Me, too!” begged my five-year-old self. “Can I, huh, Can I?” The caller looked pained when Mom asked permission. “Yeah, OK. But only if she can find someone who’ll dance with a kid that young.” The deck was stacked against me, but Joe paid a friend sixpence to dance with me. My love affair with dance was off and running.

Mom enrolled me in Mrs. Manorgan’s school of dance and where my friends and I twirled and skipped as a plump elderly lady pounded the piano for us. I loved being in a room designed for girls to fearlessly leap through the air. We were like an army boot camp in pink ballet slippers. I was empowered, emboldened, and encouraged to defy gravity. But, after soaring from the top of the playground slide, I landed in a heap of broken bones and was relegated to the role of audience for years.

I dreamt of someday making my mark among the dancing greats: Margot Fonteyn, Martha Graham, and Maria Tallchief. Larger than life, they made my muscles sing just watching them. I would have given both my brothers, gladly, to meet one of the great ballerinas! To see them up close in their makeup and costumes! But years went by, I went to college and the dream began to fade. I started to teach and create cultural programs for the community. I gave up on my ballerina dreaming, but ironically, my writing brought me closer to my dream than any leap ever had.

My very first starring role as a writer was at the Society for Dance History Scholars. I had written an article about Baroque dance, the build-up to classical ballet. A panel of experts chose my paper for an annual conference and that’s how I found myself standing next to the conference’s keynote speaker, Maria Tallchief.

She was a legend. There was only one other Native American ballet greats and that was Maria’s sister. Tallchief talked about being the daughter of an Osage Chief on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. She described dancing at local rodeos as a teenager and how she later became an international dancing star. Tallchief talked about her marriage to the famous dance master, George Balanchine, and how they created the New York City Ballet Company. She shared how she’d recreated that ballet success in Chicago, with the Chicago City Ballet.

I shook hands with Maria Tallchief and got close enough to see the makeup that she didn’t really need. The proud, chiseled face that was her legacy from her Native American father was unique, dramatic and stunning. I was sure I’d remember her face just as I was sure she would never remember my face, or my name. How could I be more than another adoring fan among thousands in her lifetime?

I couldn’t have known at the time that I would come face to face with Maria Tallchief under very different circumstances. I had used my writing skills to become a grant writer and the Chicago City Ballet Company and its school needed me. They got caught in the spectacular belly-up fiasco at Continental Bank. When I arrived at the Ballet’s building on Chicago’s Miracle Mile their three floors were beautifully equipped, but deserted. There were no dancers, no teachers, and no students.

The office was almost empty. A stressed-out woman named Linda was on the phone trying to book performances. Linda’s mother was at the receptionist’s desk. One lonely volunteer paced the floor of what was left of the school. With a sweet smile on her quirky face, Joan Cusak looked at me hopefully. She’d have more success as an actress in a few years, but for now, she was quietly struggling to save Tallchief’s legacy.

I talked with Maria Tallchief only briefly. She was not a hands-on volunteer, but she was fiercely determined. She was the face of the ballet, the inspiration, the heart and soul. It took a formidable effort to ensure that the Chicago City Ballet and Maria Tallchief had their rightful place in history. I escorted the ballet company on a small portion of the journey; others would take over and navigate to a safe port. In the process, I received the unexpected gift of words of praise from my idol, even though indirectly. Joan told me, “Maria likes you, Deborah. You have respect. ”

For that one brief moment, I was again empowered, enlightened and emboldened. Many thanks, Maria Tallchief. You will always have my respect. It was an honor to be of service and defy gravity with you.


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