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An Osage Ballet: Celebrating heritage through dance

Members of the Osage Ballet rehearse June 14 at the planned Symphony in the Flint Hills in Irma’s Pasture in Chase County. Dancers of all ages met for this performance. (Photo by Kevin Benavides)

By Brogan Gillmore

The Symphony in the Flint Hills was scheduled to open with a ballet at 4:30 p.m. June 15. And not your average ballet — not that a ballet in a pasture is average — this ballet was one written, performed and about the Osage people. The Osage had in the past roamed the Flint Hills, and now they were returning to tell their story.

In 2009 Ballet Director Randy Smith was inspired by music she heard at the Osage Nation Museum. As an Osage, she wanted to share the story of her people. This led to the creation of Wahzhazhe: an Osage Ballet. The ballet has performed around the country, even opening for the pope, and has lead to the formation of Dream Maker Academy, a dance studio in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. 

The word Wahzhazhe (wa-za-si) is the name of the Osage in their native language, and “Wahzhazhe: an Osage Ballet” is the story of the Osage people.  

Smith said she is constantly asked ‘Why ballet?’ The answer is simple to Osage.

“I have never had an Osage person ask me ‘Why ballet?’ It just became part of our culture because we are proud of them,” Smith said.

During the 1900s two of the most famous ballerinas in the United States were Osage. One ballerina, Maria Tallchief, was the main act during the early days of the New York City Ballet.

The ballet follows the Osage through pre-contact with European settlers and the years of hardships as they conform to a changing world. The ballet does this with vibrant costumes and dances showcasing the different generations of the Osage.

Ronnie Underwood, the artistic director for the Osage Ballet, instructs members during a warm-up June 14 at Irma’s Pasture. (Photo by Easton Thompson)

One scene depicts the Osage, dressed in feather-filled headdresses, as they discovered the incoming Europeans in their pointed metal hats and armor. The Native dancers encircle the terrified trespassing ballerinas with each step in time with the music, not wasting a single move.  

Set in the 1920s, another scene has Osage women dressed as flapper girls in sequined dresses and cloche hats. The dancers twirl and kick their legs, as their male counterparts leap onto the scene, adding to the choreographed chaos on stage.

“There’s a lot of history about Osage people but none of it has been written by Osage people. It has always been written by somebody else, so this is us being able to tell our own story,” said Jenna Smith, choreographer of the Osage ballet and Randy Smith’s daughter.

It began with the music

The ballet began in 2009 after Randy had heard a compilation of music written by a friend called “The Journey.” The music told the tale of how the Osage people moved from Arkansas and Missouri to Oklahoma. The melodic tunes, reminiscent of traditional Osage songs, infected Randy with an idea.

“When I heard the music, I thought that would make the most beautiful ballet,” Randy said. “I could picture all the different clothes and everything from each era. It was fabulous.”

Randy had never done ballet herself. Her daughter, Jenna, has been in ballet since she was 3 and earned her degree in dance. Because of that, Randy had been backstage for ballet recitals most her daughter’s life.

For a year, Randy had been meeting with elders crafting an accurate storyline for the ballet and gaining permission to tell some of the Osage’s stories. During that time Randy said all she could talk about was Osage history.

“I had just been around my mom listening to the story,” Jenna said. “I just kind of fell into the role of choreographer.

“She always says it was meant to be an Osage who told our story.”

The dancers of the Osage Ballet rehearse for a performance prepared for the 2019 Symphony in the Flint Hills, which was canceled due to storm damage. (Photo by Brogan Gillmore)

The impact of the Osage Ballet

The ballet was never meant to be more than a one-off venture, Randy said. She planned for it to be recorded then brought to children and tribes throughout the U.S. —  teaching young people about costuming, set design, music and, of course, ballet.

“But after we showed it the first time, everyone was like, ‘We have to see this again,’ so our life changed,” Randy said.

One of those changes was the formation of their own dance studio, called Dance Maker Academy.

“We could barely find native dancers, much less Osage Ballet Dancers, so we opened this studio five years ago to train our own ballet dancers to eventually do the professional positions in this ballet,” Jenna said. She owns the studio — a dream her mother said she had since she was a child.

The studio has 87 students, and Jenna said she hopes to expand to accommodate future students one day with a bigger space.

It’s not just the Smiths’ lives that changed, but the scope of the ballet.

Wahzhazhe: an Osage Ballet had become a hit, playing at the National Museum of the American Indian, and for millions at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia in 2015.

“It was such a connection, even a guy from Poland came up and said, ‘Oh some of these things happened to us,’” Randy said.

“I think we’ve seen a healing process that kind of happens when people see this show.”