Osage Ballet Teacher Jenna Smith LaViolette Is Keeping the Tallchief Sisters’ Legacy Alive in Oklahoma
November 5, 2020

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief. Moscelyne Larkin. Rosella Hightower. Yvonne Chouteau.

These world-famous Native American ballerinas, referred to as the “Five Moons,” became trailblazers in the ballet world beginning in the 1940s, when much of the industry was dominated by Russian and European dancers.

Today, Indigenous ballet dancers are few and far between, but Jenna Smith LaViolette, who is part of the same tribe as the Tallchief sisters—the Osage Nation—is working to keep the legacy of the Five Moons alive as the director of Dance Maker Academy, located on the Osage reservation in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

A black and white shot of Tallchief and several men stepping off an airplane, luggage in hand

Maria Tallchief returning from a NYCB tour in 1953. Photo courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

Since 2014, the school has taught ballet, tap, jazz and drama to students representing 20 different Native American tribes, with about half of the students being of Osage descent (roughly one-fourth of the students are non-Indigenous).

But despite the popularity ballet gained in Osage County due to the Tallchief sisters—Maria is widely regarded as the first American prima ballerina and was a star at New York City Ballet, and Marjorie was the first Native American dancer to become a première danseuse étoile at the Paris Opéra Ballet—when LaViolette was first choreographing her Wahzhazhe: An Osage Ballet back in 2012, she was hard pressed to find any Indigenous professional dancers, let alone Osage dancers.

It was LaViolette’s mother, Randy Tinker Smith, who is of Osage and Cherokee descent and directed Wahzhazhe, who first had the idea of capturing their history through a ballet. While working at the Osage Nation Museum in 2009, she heard music written by her colleague and fellow Osage Lou Brock and was inspired to set a ballet to it.

“One of the main questions we get is ‘Why ballet to tell our story?'” says LaViolette. “My mom watched me grow up dancing, so that was her immediate thought. Also, every Osage around my mom’s age had taken ballet because of Maria and Marjorie.” (Wahzhazhe also features some Osage dancing during the opening and closing numbers.)

Dancers in traditional Osage attire are seen from the side of a brightly lit stage, leaning forward towards the camera

A scene from Wahzhazhe. Photo by Geneva Horsechief Hamilton, courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Though LaViolette’s grandfather was raised in Fairfax, Oklahoma—the same town as the Tallchiefs—LaViolette grew up in Georgia, where she studied ballet. Every summer, her family traveled to Pawhuska to participate in their Osage ceremonial dances called Elonshka. Her family moved to the Osage Nation reservation in 2006 and LaViolette continued her training at the Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education, and then at Oral Roberts University.

Though the original idea was to have local choreographer Roman Jasinski create the ballet, there wasn’t enough money to pay an outside choreographer. So LaViolette, who was in her first year out of college and teaching part-time at Tulsa Ballet Center and at Jasinski’s local ballet school, choreographed it herself. “It kind of fell onto my lap to choreograph the ballet,” she says. “My mom said it was the right thing to do because an Osage should choreograph our story.”

Casting the ballet was challenging, but after holding an audition at Jasinski Academy and running advertisements to fill additional roles, LaViolette was able to fill the cast with 21 Indigenous dancers from the Osage Nation (most of whom did not have any dance training) and 11 non-Indigenous professional dancers.

Around 12 young dancers in Osage attire huddle together onstage, smiling at one another

A scene from Wahzhazhe. Photo by Geneva Horsechief Hamilton, courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Wahzhazhe (which is the name of the tribe—”Osage” is the English pronunciation) premiered at Holland Hall Walter Arts Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in August 2012. It immediately received acclaim and went on to be featured at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, in 2013 and at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia for the visit of Pope Francis in 2015. It continues to tour to various cities across the U.S. but has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the national success of the ballet came another, unexpected, success: a renewed interest in ballet on the Osage reservation. “Most of the younger kids who danced in the ballet had never had any formal dance training,” says LaViolette. “So their parents kept asking if we would open up a studio.”

The idea for Dance Maker Academy was born, though it, too, didn’t come without its challenges. At first, when Tinker Smith shared the idea of the dance school with Osage elders, they were not entirely convinced it was a good idea.

“There were a lot of questions about how real this could be in our rural town in Oklahoma,” says Geoffrey StandingBear, current Principal Chief of the Osage Nation.

LaViolette was not deterred. “I knew it was the right thing to do to help our children have some stability,” she says. “If we aren’t going to do it, then who is?”

An adult woman in all black leads four young girls in tendus

LaViolette teaching at Dance Maker Academy. Photo courtesy Dance Maker Academy

Eventually, LaViolette earned the elders’ support. “Once they heard why I wanted to do it, they were on board,” says LaViolette. “I think they were just concerned at first about my sanity trying to open the school, because our town was so small.”

So in 2014, with the help of numerous community donations, Dance Maker Academy opened its doors on the Osage reservation with 44 students. Today, enrollment has expanded to nearly 100 students, 60 percent of whom are on scholarship. Last year, Dance Maker Academy became the only nonprofit organization in the state to partner with a school district (Pawhuska Public Schools) to offer dance instruction at no cost to all middle and high school students. And with help from fundraising events and business donations, the academy has been performing an annual Nutcracker since 2017, along with, of course, an annual performance of Wahzhazhe.

“When we do Wahzhazhe, it is important for the kids to know where they come from,” says Penny Adair, a former Dance Maker student and now a teacher (and a distant relative of Yvonne Chouteau). “I try to tell them the history of the ballet and their lineage so they can communicate that in their dancing.”

While the Osage have their own history of dancing, Chief StandingBear says there has never been any concern with ballet overshadowing those traditions. (LaViolette plans the studio’s schedule around the Osage Elonshka dances that are held every June.)

In fact, the Osage’s strong relationship with dance has boded well for Dance Maker Academy. “At one point, we had 10 boys attending our academy because Osage and native people dance,” says LaViolette. “A lot of Osage elder men also took ballet because of the Tallchief sisters. It wasn’t frowned upon, as it usually is, for men to dance.”

Like most studios, Dance Maker Academy had to close for four months this year and hold classes through Zoom. The school reopened in June, with social distancing measures in place, and was able to hold its postponed spring performance in August.

Community support has kept the children of Osage dancing: The Osage Nation Foundation paid for every child who participated in the school’s summer camp, and the Oklahoma Arts Council gave Dance Maker two grants to help weather financial challenges caused by the pandemic.

As it turns out, LaViolette was right about Dance Maker Academy being a needed source of stability for the community. Faith Rackliff, for example, had been dealing with domestic violence at home when a youth pastor mentioned that she might audition for Wahzhazhe as an outlet.

“We went through a rough time,” explains her mother, Dena Cosby. “Ballet gave Faith something to look forward to after school, so she didn’t have to worry about what was happening at home. It helped her build confidence.” Now, seven years later, Rackliff is a 15-year-old scholarship student with dreams of becoming a professional dancer.

Though Maria Tallchief passed away in 2013 and Marjorie, now 94, resides in Florida, their legacy lives on in Osage County thanks to LaViolette.

“We have this studio and the ballet because of the Tallchief sisters and their legacy,” says LaViolette. “If it weren’t for them, we really wouldn’t be here.”

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