Elegant and intense. That is how I'll always remember her.
I can still recall the first time I ever saw Maria Tallchief in person. I had been dancing at her school, Chicago City Ballet, for a month or so, taking classes with her sister Marjorie and other instructors there. One day I arrived early as usual to get my spot at the barre and warm up. Students filed in one-by-one, taking their places.
I turned around to check the time and saw her sweep into the classroom. You see, she didn't just walk in -- she made an entrance. Dressed in black from head to toe, she had a cape-like wrap on and a few unique pieces of jewelry. She wore her thick hair down and held her chin high -- every bit the prima ballerina.
The class was silent which was typical, but there was an electricity in the air. We were about to take a technique class from one of the most famous American ballet dancers of all time. Talk about pressure! I looked around the room and noticed that all eyes were completely focused on her with a sense of anticipation. Even the pianist seemed to be sitting up a little straighter than usual.
As she demonstrated the steps, her voice matched her appearance -- dramatic and strong. For the next hour and a half, I tried with all my might to memorize each detail she pointed out and every correction she gave. As she touched my hand to adjust it, I was keenly aware that this same hand had also touched Balanchine, Nureyev and countless others. It was hard to wrap your head around.
I was thirteen years old and I had never been more intimidated. Or more thrilled.
Over the next few years I would have the opportunity to learn much more from Ms. Tallchief, but the most valuable thing I ever received from her was garnered simply by watching her move. By studying the way she gestured with her hands and turned her head -- just so. It's something you just can't capture in words, and it's something that became part of me as a dancer from that moment forward.
She really made an impression.
To me, Maria Tallchief will always symbolize the grandeur and mystery that people are so fascinated with when it comes to ballerinas. It was difficult to be comfortable in her presence because she didn't just act like a prima ballerina; she really was one to her very core.
And I am so lucky to have experienced that.
This post first appeared at 4dancers.org