Johnson and Dean, ca. 1905.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | By: Georg Kurtze, Leipzig

Dora Dean

A dance and fashion icon, Dora Dean won over countless fans at the turn of the last century. Berliners flocked to see the elegant performer and her new style: the Cakewalk. The dance craze would leave its mark on the culture and everyday life of the city.

by Deborah Pomeranz

Dora Dean was born in 1872 in Cloverport (Kentucky, USA), at the time a town of just 850 or so residents. As an eighteen-year-old she decided to try her luck in the city of St. Louis, where she joined a Black Vaudeville group. There she met Charles Johnson, a self-taught dancer two years her senior. The pair married in 1893.

Johnson and Dean: Cakewalk Icons

Dean and Johnson moved to New York, where they brought Cakewalk to the Broadway stage. The dance had its origins in Southern African American culture, where it developed as a parody of the rigid social norms of the slave-holding upper class. Touring vaudeville shows spread the dance throughout the US, before Dean and Johnson brought the it into the high cultural mainstream. Not only were they likely the first Black performers on Broadway, they were also the first to perform an art from the African American cultural tradition on its symbolically charged stage.

Postcard from the series “Cake-Walk”, before 1905.
Universitäts- und Stadtbibliothek Köln| By: Paul Fink, Berlin
Dean and Johnson were noted for their elegant costumes, a tradition rooted in the satirical origins of the dance. Johnson’s lilac, dusky pink or pearl-gray suits were always perfectly tailored; Dean’s dresses elaborate and paired with precious jewelry. The pair invested their earnings in finery for the next production, a strategy that was so successful that by 1901 they had booked their first performance abroad: in Berlin’s Wintergarten Theater.

The European Years

Johnson and Dean started their years-long European tour with a one-month engagement at the Wintergarten. The pair, with their luxurious costumes, innovative music, and exaggerated movements, became an overnight sensation, paving the way for the many other Black American performers who would visit Berlin in the years that followed. Soon, Cakewalk’s influence was everywhere: in variety shows and dance halls, in advertising and design, in music and art.
The Wintergarten Theater in the Central-Hotel, Berlin, 1895.
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Hermann Rückwardt

Despite the growing competition, Johnson and Dean remained sought-after performers, and returned to Berlin many times during their years of touring. Dean in particular was enormously popular. One of her committed fans, the Berlin-based artist Ernst Heilemann, painted her life-size portrait in 1901. She even impressed European royalty: Queen Marie of Romania gifted her a gemstone brooch, and King Edward VII invited her to perform in London.

Endings and New Beginnings

With the start of the First World War, Johnson and Dean, who had broken up a short time before, left Europe. Dean made a living as a film actress, until she and Johnson got back together as a couple and as dance partners in the mid-1930s. Their audience was now usually of an older generation, those who still remembered the pair as the groundbreaking, internationally famous variety duo. Johnson and Dean, unsatisfied with retirement, were planning yet another comeback when Dean passed away in December 1949, at the age of 77.
Dora Dean stands in front of a copy of her portrait, painted in 1901 by Ernst Heilemann, Minneapolis (Minnesota, USA) 1946.
© Hennepin County Library