The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dorothy Toy, dazzling dancer known as the ‘Asian Ginger Rogers,’ dies at 102

Dorothy Toy performs with her dance partner, Paul Wing. (Courtesy of Dorlie Fong)

Dorothy Toy, a dancer whose dynamic film and stage performances in the 1930s and 1940s with her partner, Paul Wing, led her to be dubbed the “Asian Ginger Rogers,” died July 10 at her home in Oakland, Calif. She was 102.

The death was confirmed by her daughter, Dorlie Fong, who declined to specify a cause.

Ms. Toy began performing outside her family’s restaurant in Los Angeles and studied ballet and tap dancing before launching a professional career in her teens.

Along with her sister Helen, Ms. Toy and Wing — billed as “The Three Mah Jongs” — appeared in their first film, “Happiness Ahead,” in 1934. After her sister left to pursue a singing career, Ms. Toy and Wing formed an enduring dance partnership known simply as “Toy and Wing.”

Sometimes called the “Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” even though Ms. Toy was of Japanese ancestry, Toy and Wing became headliners at the country’s top vaudeville theaters, including the Paramount in New York. In 1939, they were the first Asian performers to appear at the Palladium theater in London.

Their routines owed little to stereotypical American perceptions of Asian dance but were performed at a breakneck pace to jazz music, sometimes played by such stars as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

Ms. Toy and Wing appeared in elaborate formal costumes, with routines that seemed to combine the elegance of Astaire and Rogers with the athletic flair of the Nicholas brothers. Wing would leap over Ms. Toy’s back and land on the floor in splits, then rise up as if his legs were made of elastic.

“I do not know how to describe the dance,” Ms. Toy told NPR in 2009. “It wasn’t a ballroom, it wasn’t a jazz, it was a swing number, and it had a little bit of Lindy in it, a little rock and roll, just a little bit of that.”

Ms. Toy’s specialty was a dazzling display of toe dancing, as she pirouetted around the floor. In another routine, she hopped across the stage on her toes, kicking her legs out to the sides, always with a bright smile. She and Wing appeared in the 1937 musical short “Deviled Ham” and other films and often toured with Chico Marx, one of the Marx brothers.

“We loved to dance, and I guess it came across to the people,” Ms. Toy said in a 2016 documentary by Rick Quan, “Dancing Through Life.” “Whatever we did, we enjoyed it, and the audience enjoyed it.”

The couple were married in 1940, and their career was at its height in 1943, when Wing was drafted into the Army, bringing their act to a temporary halt.

Ms. Toy was born Shigeko Takahashi in San Francisco on May 28, 1917, and grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents ran a restaurant. She took the name Dorothy, her daughter said, while attending Catholic school. She had a Russian ballet teacher during her youth.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Ms. Toy’s parents were forced from their home and sent to an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Topaz, Utah. Ms. Toy was living in New York at the time.

When her Japanese heritage became publicly known, Ms. Toy said she lost a movie role and other engagements.

“We went through a lot of prejudice,” she said in Quan’s documentary. “But you have to face it.”

Wing returned from combat in World War II with what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder and “wasn’t the same person that I danced with, I could tell,” Ms. Toy told NPR. The couple later divorced.

They revived their act in the early 1950s, after Ms. Toy settled in the Bay Area of California, and performed at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub well into the 1960s.

They also organized an Asian dance revue, later taken over by Ms. Toy, that toured the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan into the mid-1970s.

Ms. Toy’s second marriage, to businessman Les Fong, ended in divorce. Survivors include their two children, Dorlie Fong of Northern California and Peter Fong of Gettysburg, Pa. Wing died in 1997.

After retiring from dancing, Ms. Toy worked as a pharmacy technician in California and taught dance well into her 90s.

Her career was largely forgotten until Quan, a Bay Area broadcaster and documentarian, produced “Dancing Through Life,” which has won several awards at film festivals.

“I loved it,” Ms. Toy said in the film, summing up her career. “When you’re dancing, it’s like you’re in another world.”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Richard Macksey, Johns Hopkins professor with capacious mind and library, dies at 87

George Hodgman, best-selling author of ‘Bettyville,’ dies at 60

Edith Irby Jones, trailblazer for African American doctors, dies at 91