NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Asian American tap dance star Dorothy Toy died last month at her home in Oakland, Calif. She was 102 years old.
Toy worked mostly with Paul Wing in the 1930s and ’40s—billing themselves as “the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers” even though only Wing was Chinese. Toy was of Japanese heritage.
“The Japanese were not well liked,” she explained in a 2009 interview with NPR, adding, “We always used Chinese names. They’re shorter and easier to put on the paper.”
Toy was born Shigeko Takahashi on May 28, 1917, in San Francisco and grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents operated a restaurant across the street from a vaudeville theater. The venue’s manager spotted Toy dancing outside the restaurant, he encouraged her mother to sign the child up for lessons.
Toy and Wing headlined vaudeville venues, danced on Broadway and, according to a 2017 documentary, were the first Asian Americans to perform at the London Palladium Theater.
Toy and Wing got married in 1940—so it would be easier for them to travel together. In 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and like many other Japanese Americans, Toy’s parents were forcibly imprisoned. Gossip columnists spread the word about Toy’s heritage. In 2013, she told KPIX-TV in San Francisco that those revelations about her ancestry cost her a movie contract.
Her marriage to Wing ended after he returned from the war, but they continued to perform together and founded a dance troupe of Asian performers, which toured the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. Toy continued to teach dance into her 90s.