Ninth Inning: The Chinese Ginger Rogers Ninety-one-year-old dancer Dorothy Toy Fong was once known as the "Chinese Ginger Rogers." Toy is actually Japanese, but claimed Chinese ancestry to avoid World War II-era anti-Japanese sentiment.
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Ninth Inning: The Chinese Ginger Rogers

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Ninth Inning: The Chinese Ginger Rogers

Ninth Inning: The Chinese Ginger Rogers

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

Throughout this month, we're focusing on the extraordinary experiences of older generations in a series we've titled, "The Ninth Inning." And today, we're going to introduce you to dancer Dorothy Toy Fong of Oakland, California.

M: I like to dance, and that makes me feel lively.

GREENE: Lively at 91 years old. Dorothy did take a fall recently, but she didn't stay down long. She teaches dance these days, and was back with her students last week. Now, when we spoke to Dorothy, she took us back to a different time, 1934. She and her dance partner, Paul Wing, were just starting their career.

M: We started in that "Happiness Ahead" with Dick Powell.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND TAP DANCING)

GREENE: You are the one Only you beneath the moon and under the sun Whether near to me or far It's no matter...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

M: Day and night Why is it so That is...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

M: But on the other numbers, our arranger would arrange different music for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M: It's called "Best Dishes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BEST DISHES")

M: Oh my goodness. It was me ...(laughing). I do not know how to describe the dance. 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. We had little snatches of everything, but we did it ballroom style.

GREENE: Snatches of everything, including a Russian dance. She called it one of her favorites.

M: Because it was always bent knees and doing ronde de jambe in a plie position all across the stage, which would always get a big hand, and that was our last number. And then my partner would do his splits and jumps up off of the piano into a split, and things like that.

GREENE: Their act drew invitations to perform around the world. Toy and Wing broke ground in 1939, when they became the first Asians to perform at the London Palladium. For that trip, they crossed the Atlantic on the ocean liner Normandy as enthusiastic and naive young dancers really living a fairy tale - until war began to get in the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

GREENE: Dorothy vividly remembers being in London when that first air-raid siren rang out.

M: We were at church one day, and we heard the sirens going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

M: We were not too smart. We never knew what was going on, but we saw all the people leaving the church. So the siren meant that they saw a plane coming. So we didn't know, because we're too young, and we're unaware of things. So when the church emptied out, and we're still sitting there and then all of a sudden, the priest leaves and the altar boy leaves, and we thought, well, we'd better go out and follow the priest. So we went outside and followed the priest. This is really ridiculous, but when you're two young people who don't know too much - so we went down to where the priest was going, and there was all the people down below, way down below of the - where all the underground is.

U: Down here on the platforms of the famous Piccadilly Tube in the heart of London's West End. It's one of the saddest results of the war that women, children and men, in that order - men are in the minority here - have to be here at all. Many are bombed out of their homes. All looked tired, but they feel safe here, a good hundred feet below ground, and their spirit and fortitude are simply grand.

M: And then when the siren blew that it was clear, then we went upstairs with the rest of them, but we had to follow people because we're too young, and we didn't know what was going on.

GREENE: When the young couple returned home, the fairy tale briefly resumed. Wing and Toy performing on Broadway at a time when that was rare, if not unheard of, for Asian-American dancers. But then, war returned to their lives. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast should be placed in internment camps. Dorothy was living on the East Coast and avoided being incarcerated. Her parents were not as lucky.

M: My parents, they're Japanese, and they had a restaurant in Los Angeles. And when the war came, they had to all go to camp.

GREENE: Dorothy herself is Japanese-American. Her real name is Dorothy Takahashi. But even before the war, she'd given herself a Chinese name to face less discrimination.

M: The Japanese were not well-liked. We - I never used that anyway. We always used Chinese names. They're shorter and easier to put on the paper.

GREENE: In 1944, Dorothy and Paul were still dancing on Broadway. But then, Paul was called to war, drafted into the service. Dorothy remembers when he came home.

M: He was a little different, and he was a little shell-shocked or something. He wasn't the same person that I danced with, I could tell. He wasn't the same, so we split up.

GREENE: There were a few attempts to revive the act, but Dorothy and Paul eventually went their separate ways, having left those magical moments during wartime behind. Paul Wing died in 1997. Dorothy, seven decades after her first feature film, is still going. She wouldn't let her recent fall keep her away from her students.

M: I started to teach a week ago, and I had one of my students come back. And I'm teaching her and going over all her routines that - I taught her several dances.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Dorothy Toy Fong, still dancing, and still inspiring, at age 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: We should say that comments have been coming in about our "Ninth Inning" series since its first installment last week. One criticism was that this series might encourage older Americans to keep working longer than they really should. Well, Chester Aaron, the 85-year-old garlic farmer we profiled last week, emailed us a response to those critics. Chester said people like him know that the game is almost over. They just don't feel like they have to surrender their strength and their independence.

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