Ann Lawanick struggles to support her exhausted partner, Jack Ritof, during a dance marathon in Chicago. IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/CORBIS/VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES
Bop Till You Drop
During The Great Depression, People Danced Until They Literally Dropped
Despite the use of the word ‘dance,’ the dance marathon was not a dance event so much as a social phenomenon. It demanded everything in the way of stamina and determination
Americans first experienced and embraced dance marathons in 1923, after which these events quickly gained popularity. But the dance marathon that burst upon the scene as yet another fad in keeping with the ebullient nature of the 1920s was dissimilar in form and intent from the dance marathon as it would evolve during the depression years of the 1930s. Within a decade, dance marathons were quickly transformed into a combination of contest and entertainment, replete with spectacle, humour, horror, romance suspense, and drama.
Between 1928 and 1934 when the Great Depression was devastating America, dance marathons became a major form of popular entertainment. Forced to consider all options for economic and emotional survival, many people chose the dance marathons. For the watchers, it was a diversion that held out the hope of seeing someone beat the odds and win, but most importantly, it was about them, a performative representation of people physically enduring gruellingly hard times. For contestants, winning meant earning money and maybe going on to bigger and better things. For the losers, they temporarily had hopes, food, shelter, and stability in an unstable world. Simply defined, a dance marathon was a competition to see which couple could dance or stay upright for the longest period of time without stopping.
Initially dance marathons were a product of the excessive mood of frivolity and celebration that characterized the 1920s and, as such, the concept behind them was both simple and naïve. Early marathoners wanted to break endurance records and gain fame. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, the Great Depression had altered the marathons. “Whereas in the 1920s marathons were part of the mood of liberated living in the name of patriotism, in the 1930s they represented arduous struggle for survival.
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