Johnson and Dean: Fashion Plates

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

Johnson and Dean were a husband-wife dance team who bridged the era between minstrelsy and vaudeville, and are best known for developing and popularizing the dance known as the cakewalk.

It all began with Charlie Johnson (born around the end of the Civil War), who started out in all-black minstrel shows in the 1870s. He adapted a practice from slavery times known as the chalk dance, in which the individual moved on and around a chalk line with a bucket of water on his head. Johnson did away with the bucket but retained the movements. In 1889, he met chorus girl Dora Dean (nee Babbige) while performing in Sam T. Jack’s Creole Show, which is known to be the first of the minstrel shows to employ performing women alongside men. By 1893 they had married and formed a team, playing an early gig at the Chicago World’s Fair and becoming one of the few African American acts in mainstream (white) vaudeville. (They were known as principal rivals to Williams and Walker). Always dressed to the nines, they were known as “the King and Queen of Colored Aristocracy” and “the Colored Fashion Plates”. At a certain point, they worked up a “kinetescope rag-time” dance, taking advantage of the new motion picture craze, by shining flashing lights at themselves, creating the illusion that they were in a movie.

They toured Europe a few times, but it came to a halt came to a halt with the First World War. By this time, tap dance and the Castle Craze were coming in, and Johnson and Dean’s style of movement was regarded as distinctly old-fashioned, hearkening as is it did back to minstrel days. They went into retirement, occasionally venturing out to the odd nostalgia appearance. She passed away in 1945; he, ten years later.

The people in this clip are unidentified, but the dance they do is certainly the cakewalk:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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