Before there were reality shows like Dancing with the Stars, Survivor, and America's Next Top Model, there existed a strange phenomenon called the dance marathon. Dance marathons were wildly popular in the U.S. during the 1920s and 1930s. This was a time when people were in the midst of the Great Depression, struggling to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. It was also a time when the U.S. became obsessed with endurance competitions. Bicycle races lasting six days, flagpole sitting, and other grueling, bizarre competitions were common during this era. The strangest competition of them all was the dance marathon.
How It All Began
Dance marathons became a popular fad in 1923 when a 32-year-old woman named Alma Cummings danced without stopping for 27 hours. She went through six dance partners during the process. Cummings swiftly gained fame after this unheard of feat, and it wasn't long before others stepped forward in hopes of breaking the record. Local contests popped up around the country.
McMillan's Dancing Academy in Houston, TX was the first to promote and develop a dance endurance competition. Spectators paid to see the event where winners earned prizes for dancing the longest amount of time. The event's promoter, a man by the name of McMillan, encouraged contestants to entertain the audience any way they could. Despite this fact, he was sensitive to the needs of the dancers. This caring attitude quickly vanished as the bizarre fad continued to sweep across the U.S.
More Promoters Cash In
Promoters realized they could earn vast amounts of money if they organized their own competitions While flagpole sitting and other endurance sports were popular events, a dance marathon brought more profit because the event took place in one room. Audience members could comfortably watch the spectacle, so more people would pay to attend.
Rules to Dance By
Couples who entered a dance marathon had to move continuously for 45 minutes each hour, their feet constantly remaining in motion. Knees could not touch the floor. If they did, contestants were disqualified. If one dancer dropped out of the marathon, the partner was required to leave as well. Contestants rested for 15 minutes of every hour. During the brief rest period, men and women stayed in separate sleeping areas where they could sleep, change clothing, or have a massage. The dancers paid for their own massages. The competition was grueling, humiliating, and physically exhausting. A single competition lasted as long as two months. Some dance marathons included races and endurance tests involving complicated dance steps. Audience members threw money at their favorite dancers, cheered them on, and chatted with them.
Seeking Normalcy in the Midst of Madness
Dancers found ways to occupy their time by reading or knitting while they danced. Men perfected the art of shaving while dancing. Unbelievably, dancers managed to get some needed rest while shuffling along. When one partner snoozed, the other supported his or her weight. This was no easy feat for women who needed to hold up a sleeping man.
Why Did the Dancers Do It?
Why did people submit to such a self-punishing event? They lived during the Great Depression, when money, jobs, and food were scarce. Dance marathons provided each contestant with
- The prospect of earning a cash prize
The prize was usually no more than a few hundred dollars. Many contestants dreamed of embarking on a film career, but this rarely happened. The real winners were event promoters who earned huge amounts of money on ticket sales. Depression-era audiences flocked to these shows because their own miserable situations seemed less dire when they watched exhausted dancers stumble around a dance floor. It allowed spectators to feel a bit superior. Audience members paid twenty-five cents to view the spectacle for as long as they wished.
Movie theater owners opposed the marathons because no one wanted to attend a film when a dance marathon was in town. Church groups opposed the events because physically and mentally drained dancers tightly clutched each other in a way that was not socially acceptable. Women's groups opposed them because they felt it was unethical to charge money so an audience could watch desperate dancers humiliate themselves in front of a crowd.
Desperate People, Desperate Times
Participating in a dance marathon during the 1920s and 1930s was a way many people sought to earn fame and money during a time when the majority had no jobs and no hope of a better life. This controversial form of entertainment drew huge crowds who clamored to see such lavish tests of human endurance. Contestants risked their physical and mental health as they tried to be the last couple left on the dance floor. Unscrupulous promoters profited from the misery of people who nearly danced themselves to death in hopes of winning money. These spectacles began as an innocent novelty but quickly transformed into a way to torture people in search of a better way of life. In pursuit of the American Dream, the dance marathon contestants chased after an elusive prize and usually failed in their attempts to catch it.
Dancing for a Good Cause
Today, colleges and universities often hold dance marathons to raise money for children's charities. Schools such as University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and Augustana College raise funds for the Children's Miracle Network. Other colleges around the company raise money for the organization as well. Dancers and spectators enjoy dancing, games, refreshments, and entertainment. College students around the U.S. organize the events and raise tens of thousands of dollars. Students reinvented dance endurance competitions as a way to raise money for organizations that help people instead of exploit them.
- Written by Kimberly Solis