The Five Oklahoma Native Ballerinas

Dancers create legacy as they devote their lives to art they love

Story by: Jenefar De Leon, Staff Writer

Dancers create legacy as they devote their lives to art they love

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Five Indian Ballerinas

By Jenefar De Leon, Staff Writer

During a 1982 interview, American Indian ballerina Yvonne Chouteau spoke of how her heritage had enriched her dancing.

"The Indian people are very artistic as a whole," Chouteau was reported saying in a New York News Service interview. "We are also very non-verbal, and so I think dance is a perfect expression of the Indian soul."

Although having differing Indian backgrounds, perhaps it was a similar spirit that helped propel five young women forward to enjoy and perfect their art and become known as Oklahoma's "Five Indian Ballerinas."

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Yvonne Chouteau danced their way into the hearts of art lovers throughout the world. The five ballerinas had the skills and the techniques that all dancers needed, but unlike many dancers, the five ballerinas had the spirit and passion credited to their American Indian heritage and Oklahoma roots.

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief are of Osage heritage; Rosella Hightower of Choctaw heritage; Moscelyne Larkin of half-Shawnee-Peoria heritage; and Yvonne Chouteau of Shawnee-Cherokee heritage.

Devoting hours to rehearsals and performances, each was given the title as prima ballerina in their company — a title not given to all ballet dancers.

After years of performing, each dancer established or expanded dance companies in cities including Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Boca Raton, Fla., and Paris, France.

Clockwise, from top left: Oklahoma's five Indian ballerinas are Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin and Rosella Hightower. The Oklahoman Archive
Clockwise, from top left: Oklahoma's five Indian ballerinas are Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin and Rosella Hightower. The Oklahoman Archive

As a result of their impact in the world of dance and the proud heritage each holds in their heart, the five ballerinas were named Oklahoma's treasures by former Gov. Frank Keating in 1997. They were honored with a mural, "Flight of Spirit," in the state Capitol rotunda. The mural artist, Mike Larsen, is an Oklahoma resident of Chickasaw descent.

Yvonne Chouteau, 7, is shown with headdress.
Yvonne Chouteau, 7, is shown with headdress. The Oklahoman Archive

The painting shows the past and the present of Oklahoma history and the contribution these five ballerinas have made to the arts and to Oklahoma, said Amber Sharples, visual arts director for the Oklahoma Arts Council.

The five American Indian ballerinas proudly represented their Oklahoma Indian heritage. The ballerinas grew up dancing to traditional American Indian dances, while at the same time their families encouraged them to take ballet lessons.

They first came together during the Louis Ballard Ballet, "The Four Moons," which celebrated the Indian ballerinas.

During a 1997 Oklahoman interview, Chouteau recalled her feelings when the five ballerinas reunited in Oklahoma in 1967 to dance "The Four Moons."

"To stand in the wings and watch Rosella Hightower, even at rehearsal gave me goose bumps," Chouteau said. "To watch Marjorie to see the unique artistry.

"You could see so clearly the Indian heritage. It was uncanny, just uncanny, the way Miss Hightower, the way her feet would touch the floor and leave it. Only an Indian could touch like that fleet, fleet of foot."

Although the women traveled all over the world, they were still able to start their own families.

Marjorie and Maria Tallchief perform a impromptu workout in 1956. Their audience is Marjorie's twins, Alexander and George.
Marjorie and Maria Tallchief perform a impromptu workout in 1956. Their audience is Marjorie's twins, Alexander and George.The Oklahoman Archive

Elise Paschen, daughter of Maria Tallchief, said her earliest memories are being a backstage baby.

"My mother is a beautiful dancer," she said. "She is still a beautiful woman, but when she danced, you could not take your eyes away from her."

Paschen said she's proud of her mother and her aunt Marjorie for being able to juggle motherhood and artistry.

"Both women were dedicated mothers," she said. "The proudest moment in her life was having me."

Maria Tallchief founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 after retiring as a dancer. She now resides in Chicago.

Marjorie Tallchief accepted the position of director of dance for the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Fla., until her retirement where she now resides.

Miguel Terekhov, husband of Yvonne Chouteau, said his wife was a beautiful dancer as well.

After having their first child together, Terekhov and Chouteau decided to move to Oklahoma. They now live in Oklahoma City.

"I think it was fate that we came to Oklahoma," Terekhov said. "Oklahoma has been good to us and has acknowledged the work that we have done."

In 1960, Chouteau and Terekhov founded and designed the dance program at the University of Oklahoma. They also helped organize the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet now called Oklahoma City Ballet.

"She will always be a treasure to me," Terekhov said. "I am very proud of my wife's accomplishment."

Robert Mills, artistic director of the Oklahoma City Ballet, said that without the works of Chouteau and Terekhov, he would not be there today.

Maria Tallchief is made a member of the state's ambassador corps by Gov. Henry Bellmon
Maria Tallchief is made a member of the state's ambassador corps by Gov. Henry BellmonThe Oklahoman Archive
Ballerina students get last-minute instruction from Yvonne Chouteau in final rehearsals for 'The Nutcracker' in 1964.
Ballerina students get last-minute instruction from Yvonne Chouteau in final rehearsals for 'The Nutcracker' in 1964.The Oklahoman Archive

"What I admire most about Yvonne and Miguel is their dedication for their art and the roads that they have paved for others to follow," he said. "I hope they would be proud of how far Oklahoma City Ballet has gone."

Mills has also worked with Larkin at the Tulsa City Ballet, which Larkin founded.

"Larkin's presence is larger than life," Mills said. "She is wonderful. She is extremely fun and full of life."

Larkin was famous for her high jumps and fast turns, and was called "the first ray of sunshine" after the war by London critics. She now lives in Tulsa.

Russ Tall Chief, great-nephew of Maria and Marjorie, said the women admired each other's techniques and talents. The death of Hightower made an impression on the four women.

In 2008, Hightower passed away in her home in Paris. She had suffered from a series of strokes. She was 88 years old.

Although Yvonne Chouteau declined an in-person interview, she wrote that their American Indian pride, their dancing, their talent and their accomplishments were what she admired most about herself and her fellow dancers.

Terekhov said, "It is our responsibility to pass down what we have been given to us, to others. We have been able to pass down our knowledge to great young people who have done a wonderful job."

And continued saying, "I hope the next generation will do the same."

Gov. Frank Keating applauds the Oklahoma Treasures, Indian ballerinas Moscelyne Larkin, Marjorie Tallchief, Maria Tallchief, Rosella Hightower and Yvonne Chouteau.
Gov. Frank Keating applauds the Oklahoma Treasures, Indian ballerinas Moscelyne Larkin, Marjorie Tallchief, Maria Tallchief, Rosella Hightower and Yvonne Chouteau.

Influences

Maria Tallchief: Helped create what is today New York City Ballet, where she was prima ballerina. In 1965 after retiring from dance, she served as director of ballet for the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Marjorie Tallchief: After retiring from dance in 1966, she and her husband became artist director of the Dallas Ballet. She also served as the director of dance for the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Fla.

Yvonne Chouteau: In 1960, Chouteau and her husband, Miguel Terekhov developed University of Oklahoma's dance program. For 10 years, they also organized and directed the Oklahoma City Civic Ballet, now known as the Oklahoma City Ballet.

Moscelyne Larkin: In the 1950s, Larkin and her husband founded the Tulsa Civic Ballet and School, now called the Tulsa Ballet Theater.

Rosella Hightower: Taught dance in France at the Ecole Superieure de Danse de Cannes.

Hometown and tribal background

Maria Tallchief: Born in Fairfax of Osage heritage in 1925.

Marjorie Tallchief: Born in Fairfax of Osage heritage in 1927. Younger sister of Maria Tallchief.

Yvonne Chouteau: Born in Vinita of Shawnee-Cherokee heritage in 1927.

Moscelyne Larkin: Born in Miami of half-Russian and half-Shawnee-Peoria in 1926.

Rosella Hightower: Born in Durwood of Choctaw heritage in 1920.

Research contributed by Billie Harry