Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) Dancing Ballets by George Balanchine to Polkas by Igor Stravinsky

by DerdriuMarriner

Being plus-sized does not entail clumsiness. Earth’s second-largest landlubbers have graceful, soundless gaits. Asian elephants also manage Balanchine dances to Stravinsky polkas.

A businessman, a choreographer, a composer, a dancer, and a trainer considered Asian elephants graceful, intelligent, and observant.

That realization inspired brainstorming the possibilities of:
• arranging circus performances;
• establishing danceable ballets;
• finalizing polka scores;
• gathering wildlife-loving ballerinas;
• instructing circus-trained pachyderms.
It meant that history could be made with:
• ballets, marches;
• cymbals, drums, piccolos, trumpets;
• 50 ballerinas, 50 elephants;
• 50 jeweled headbands, 100 pink tutus;
• original choreography and composition;
• 3 blue and red sawdust-covered circus rings.
It resulted in the history-making involvement of:
• 425 performances;
• 4,120,000 attendees;
• 104 cities.
Its realization was thanks to:
• George Balanchine;
• Walter McClain;
• John Ringling North;
• Igor Stravinsky;
• Vera Zorina.

It would not have happened at all without Modoc and 49 other elephants.

circus scion John Ringling North (right) with wildlife collector/hunter Frank Howard Buck (March 17, 1884 – March 25, 1950)

Robert M. McBride, All in a Lifetime (1941)
Robert M. McBride, All in a Lifetime (1941)


The idea of ballet-dancing elephants came from the entrepreneurial mind of John Ringling North (August 14, 1903 – June 4, 1985), as:

  • Junior-year dropout from University of Wisconsin and Yale University, 1924;
  • New York stock broker, 1924 – 1926, 1929 – 1936;
  • Salesman at Uncle John Nicholas Ringling’s (May 31, 1866 – December 2, 1936) real estate company, Sarasota, FL, 1926 - 1929;
  • Heir of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc., 1936-.

John always considered audience preferences and staff capabilities. He helped his five circus owner-operator uncles holidays, summers, and vacations by tackling everything, from popcorn sales to tax records. He identified animals as key attractions. Their entertainment, military, and transport feats inspired his making elephants center-ring attractions.


Portrait of Ringling Circus choreographer George Balanchine in Sarasota, southwestern Florida: April 1942 portrait by Joseph Janney Steinmetz (1905 - 1985)

Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection, State Library and Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, northwestern Florida
Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection, State Library and Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, northwestern Florida


John Ringling North accessed George Balanchine (January 22, 1904 – April 30, 1983). George boasted dance, piano, and theory expertise from:

  • Imperial Theater Ballet School, 1913-;
  • Petrograd Conservatory of Music, 1920-;
  • State Academy of Opera and Ballet, 1920-.

He danced with:

  • State Theater of Opera and Ballet, 1921-;
  • Principal Dancers of the Soviet State Ballet touring troupe, 1924;
  • Serge Diaghilev’s (March 31, 1872 – August 9, 1929) Ballets Russes, 1924 – 1929.

He had choreographed for:

  • Monaco’s Ballet Russe, 1930 – 1933;
  • School of American Ballet, 1934-, and American Ballet, 1935-, with co-founder Lincoln Kirstein (May 4, 1907 – January 5, 1996);
  • Metropolitan Opera, 1935 – 1938;
  • Broadway musicals, 1936-;
  • Hollywood films, 1938-;
  • American Ballet Caravan touring South America, 1941, with co-founder Lincoln.


Portrait de Stravinsky (Portrait of Stravinsky): 1918 oil on canvas by Robert Delaunay (April 12, 1885 – October 25, 1941)

German Ryan Collection, The New Art Gallery Walsall, West Midlands, west central England
German Ryan Collection, The New Art Gallery Walsall, West Midlands, west central England


George Balanchine enlisted Igor Stravinsky's (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971) help. The young Igor had completed St. Petersburg’s law school program. But he had decided upon a career in composition after:

  • The death of his bass opera-singing father Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky (June 20, 1843 – December 4, 1902);
  • The realization of an apprenticeship with orchestral master composter Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (March 18, 1844 – June 21, 1908).

He then had determined the course of twentieth-century music with:

  • Russian romanticism in Symphony no. 1 in E Flat, 1905 - 1907;
  • Russian expressionism in The Firebird, 1910;
  • Musical modernism in The Rite of Spring, 1913;
  • Neo-classicism in The Rake’s Progress opera, 1951;
  • Serialism in the 12-tone writing of Requiem Canticles, 1966.


Ballet dancer Vera Zorina: she could dance with elephants

Ballet Dancer Vera Zorina


George Balanchine choreographed Igor Stravinsky’s composition for:

  • 50 ballerinas;
  • 50 elephants.

Eva Brigitta Hartwig (January 2, 1917 – April 9, 2003) headed the ballerinas. But excepting friends and husband George Balanchine, nobody knew Brigitta as such. Brigitta let her name stand while:

  • Attending Berlin’s Lyceum for Girls;
  • Enrolling in Nikolai Legat’s (December 30, 1869 – January 24, 1937) and Olga Preobrajenska’s (February 2, 1871 – December 27, 1962) dance classes;
  • Performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1929, and The Tales of Hoffmann, 1931.

But Sergei Diaghilev and Léonide Massine (August 9, 1896 – March 15, 1979) persuaded Brigitta to perform as Vera Zorina in Monte Carlo’s Ballet Russe in 1933. As Zorina, Brigitta received a seven-year Hollywood film contract in 1938.


On November 11, 1942, terrorized by barking dogs while awaiting the cue for trio pachydermous act with Judy and Empress, Modoc bolted, seeking refuge first in Bradley Brothers drugstore, where the smell of roasting peanuts lured her ~

mural of Modoc free ranging in city of Wabash: painted by Indiana muralist Kenny Martin on Bradley Building, first site visited by Modoc during her 6-day self-guided tour.
Modoc's Market, 205 South Miami Street, Wabash, Noble Township, Wabash County, north central Indiana
Modoc's Market, 205 South Miami Street, Wabash, Noble Township, Wabash County, north central Indiana


The Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) Modoc (1897 – 1975) headed the pachyderms. She held circus superstar status because of:

  • Acute senses;
  • Astute observation;
  • Native intelligence;
  • Natural grace.

She learned quickly and retained permanently because of Walter McClain’s (1898? – 1942) understanding of:

  • Elephant skill sets;
  • Tear and wear of concrete on pachyderm feet bottoms.

Walter took Modoc and the other 49 elephants through all the paces despite initial pachyderm confusion over and resistance to musical dissonance. He was considered one of the most beloved and successful of modern elephant trainers. It was deemed a great personal loss and professional tragedy when Walter died from the impact of a runaway wagon during the circus train’s reloading in Jacksonville, Florida.


Elephant whisperer Walter McClain (1898? - November 25, 1942) taught ballet steps to Modoc and her 49-member pachydermous troupe:

Trainer Walter McClain and his elephants at the Ringling Circus, Sarasota, Florida: ca. 1940 photo by Joseph Janney Steinmetz
Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection, State Library and Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida Panhandle
Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection, State Library and Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida Panhandle


George Balanchine and Zorina became acquainted with the elephants at John Ringling North’s winter quarters. The Greatest Show on Earth exited Sarasota, Florida in April 1942. Arrival in Madison Square Garden two days later preceded countrywide repeat performances of:

  • Modoc circling while lifting each foot one by one before waltzing with Zorina;
  • Modoc and Zorina grazing the blue sawdust-covered ring with their foreheads while bowing;
  • Modoc lifting Zorina into her curled-up trunk;
  • Zorina stroking Modoc’s eyelid and scratching a front foot’s sole.

Modoc’s and Zorina’s dance was succeeded by all 50 elephants:

  • Chain-marching;
  • Dancing with all 50 ballerinas;
  • Resting front feet on another elephant’s back;
  • Swaying trunks in musical time;
  • Using trunks to hold onto another’s tail.  


Circus Poster 1942: "The Greatest Show on Earth presents 50 famous elephants with beautiful girls in an original ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky, staged by George Balanchine"

Circus Poster, 1942



Asia is the homeland of elephants such as Modoc even though their earliest known ancestors come from sub-Saharan Africa. Wildlife-loving amateurs and professionals on both continents know of ancient and modern elephants’ love of the arts. Elephants like to use their trunks to:

  • Arrange pebbles;
  • Retrieve sticks to sketch in the sand;
  • Sway with music.

People in Asian cultures preserve memories of elephants dancing in forest clearings. Rudyard Kipling’s (December 30, 1865 – January 18, 1936) The Jungle Book recalls such traditions in the story of Kala Nag and rhythm-stomping elephants. Sustaining domesticated and wild populations will give us more chances to ascertain how closely George Balanchine’s and Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka communicates the real dances of elephants.


In Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book story of "Toomai and the Elephants," seeing dancing elephants is supreme confirmation of handler's bravery and skill: such a rarity was achieved by Walter McClain and George Balanchine ~

"There are great cleared flat places hidden away in the forests that are called elephants’ ball-rooms, but even these are only found by accident, and no man has ever seen the elephants dance." (p. 518)
Rudyard Kipling, The Two Jungle Books (1895), opp. p. 506: ". . . he made Kala Nag lift up his feet one after the other."
Rudyard Kipling, The Two Jungle Books (1895), opp. p. 506: ". . . he made Kala Nag lift up his feet one after the other."



In memory of Raja the Baby Elephant on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra and with respect for Raju the Elderly Elephant in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.


Baby Raja ~ Afterword: Baby Raja died all alone, chained to a tree, crying out for his mum.

Published on YouTube on June 20, 2013 by Elephant Family ~ URL:



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


50 years a Slave : Raju the Elephant cried tears of joy after being freed from suffering

Published on YouTube on July 7, 2014 by PatrynWorldLatestNew ~ URL:

Sources Consulted


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Flanner, Janet; Maloney, Russell; Cooke, Charles. 2 May 1942. "There Goes Igor." The New Yorker: Magazine > The Talk of the Town. Retrieved November 8, 2014. 

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Folkart, Burt A. 7 June 1985. "'Greatest Show on Earth': John Ringling North, Circus Developer, Dies." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"George Balanchine." The George Balanchine Trust. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"George Balanchine." New York City Ballet: Explore > Our History. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"George Balanchine: Biography." The George Balanchine Foundation. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"George Balanchine: Master of the Dance." American Masters > Episodes > George Balanchine > 14 January 2004. Public Broadcasting Service and THIRTEEN Productions LLC. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"Georgy Melitonovich Balanchivadze." People. A&E Television Networks, LLC., 2014. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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Hammarstrom, David. 1994. Big Top Boss: John Ringling North and the Circus. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Helfer, Ralph. 1998. Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Henderson, J.Y. 1951. Circus Doctor. Told to Richard Taplinger. Little, Brown and Company. 

"John Ringling North." Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky." People. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2014. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)." Classical Net: Composers. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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Joseph, Charles M. 2008. Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press NOOK Book.

Kipling, Rudyard. 1894. The Jungle Book. Illustrated by John Lockwood Kipling. London, England: Macmillan Publishers.

  • Available via University of Adelaide eBooks at:

Kipling, Rudyard. 1895. The Two Jungle Books. With illustrations by J. Lockwood Kipling, C.I.E., and W.H. Drake. Garden City NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc.

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Kisselgoff, Anna. 12 April 2003. "Vera Zorina, 86, Is Dead; Ballerina for Balanchine." The New York Times: Arts > Archives. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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Martin, C. Lee. 15 October 2009. "The Christianni's and the Circus Fire." C. Lee Martin, et al. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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Sarah. 14 October 2010. "Circus Doctor (1951) -- Nonfiction." The Pony Book Chronicles. Retrieved November 8, 2014. 

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Saxon, Wolfgang. 6 June 1985. "John Ringling North, of Circus, Dies." The New York Times: International Arts. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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Schubert, Leda. Ballet of the Elephants. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. New Milford, CT: Deborah Brodie Book, Roaring Brook Press.

Scigliano, Eric. 2000. Love, War, and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.  

"Vera Zorina." Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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"The Story of Modoc Most Famous Elephant in America." Modoc's Market > Modoc's Legacy. Modoc's Market. Web.

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"View of Elephant Trainer Walter McClain and His Elephants at the Ringling Circus in Sarasota, Florida." Florida Memory: Photographs. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of State, State Library and Archives of Florida. Retrieved November 8, 2014.

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Zorina, Vera. 1986. Zorina. New York, NY: Farrar Straus & Giroux.


Tribute to Modoc ~ musical and poetic tribute to Modoc (1897 – 1975) by Ralph Helfer (born April 9, 1931), animal trainer, safari leader, and writer whose California ranch was final haven for Modoc ~

Uploaded to YouTube on September 14, 2009 by amm019 ~ URL:
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Ballet of the Elephants by Leda Schubert

Polka Circus-themed books

Elephant Swing: black t-shirt ~ Available via AllPosters

Elephant Swing
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Happy Elephant: heather grey t-shirt ~ Available via AllPosters

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Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer ~ #1 Best Seller in Circus Performing Arts on Amazon

Spanning seven decades and three continents, Modoc is one of the most amazing true animal stories ever told. Raised together in a small German circus town, a boy and an elephant formed a bond that would last their entire lives.
Modoc biography

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 01/03/2022, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 11/10/2014

burntchestnut, Me, too, I agree that the intelligence of animals is ever before us.

AngelaJohnson on 11/10/2014

We are constantly being shown how intelligent animals are.

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