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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.

As the Depression worsened and many Americans were without work or shelter, their physical body became their only commodity. The Depression-era dance marathon contestants used their bodies as the tool through which they might achieve some measure of economic success. Ironically, although they may have succeeded in controlling their bodies to endure endless hours on the dance floor they were controlled by the marathon promoters.

Seeking respite from the real world and the pains that accompanied the Great Depression, several gained a measure of solace in the marathon circuits that criss-crossed the country.  The contestants danced wildly, rhythmically, desperately for a square meal, a place to flop, the handful of pennies thrown to those who pleased the crowd and the chance for big money and illusory security…”

Although the standard rules of American society did not exist within the small marathon world and many participants felt that the nourishment and shelter provided more than offset the rules and regulations by which they were forced to abide. Arnold Gingrich, a journalist during the 1930s, referred to dance marathons as “the innocent jail.”

Contestants were forced to adhere to a very strict regimen, almost as if they were serving a prison term. Paradoxically these men and women thought they were taking charge of their lives by walking, shuffling, and dancing for as long as possible.

In actuality, they were being used and abused by one another and by the promoters, whose goal was to provide entertainment for a profit. In her autobiography June Havoc refers to some contestants as people who had few other choices for “work” during the 1930s.

The promoter of her first marathon, Mr. Dankle, explained the situation to her in new terms, “Only the horses stay on for the grinds and sprints…”

“Horses?” I inquired.

“Yeah,” he answered. “Horses—the desperate ones. They got no place to go. They got no brains, so they got lots of guts. They can outlast the daintier ones easy.”

Jan. 19, 1931 Frank and Marie Micholowsky, several weeks into a dance marathon in Chicago.

Jan. 19, 1931. Frank and Marie Micholowsky, several weeks into a dance marathon in Chicago.

A man named Homer Morehouse danced for 87-hours before collapsing from sheer exhaustion and then died right there on the dance floor. Another awful case took place during a dance marathon in Seattle. A women dedicated 19-days of her life to dancing, only to receive fifth place. She attempted suicide because of it. After that incident Seattle passed an ordinance banning dance marathons from being held within city limits. 1930's.IMAGE: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

A man named Homer Morehouse danced for 87-hours before collapsing from sheer exhaustion and then died right there on the dance floor.
Another awful case took place during a dance marathon in Seattle. A women dedicated 19-days of her life to dancing, only to receive fifth place. She attempted suicide because of it. After that incident Seattle passed an ordinance banning dance marathons from being held within city limits. 1930’s.IMAGE: BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES

Other contestants and spectators believed that these events represented the American Dream. “Everything could be had—fame, food, and fortune—by winning a contest, and to win, all the contestant had to do was keep moving until everyone else had dropped.”

Audiences came to voyeuristically experience the anticipation, hope, and endurance of the contestants, some returning every day for weeks and months, offering encouragement to their favourite couples. The dramatic combination of hope and suffering served as a metaphor for the Great Depression: “… complex entertainment spectacles that reflected the overall hopelessness of the culture of the Great Depression similar to the mood of ‘the aimless, endless movement of superfluous people around the country.’”

Although they continued throughout the 1930s the prime years of the last phase of the dance marathons was from 1928 to 1934. Dance marathons usually combined elements from vaudeville, which was just beginning its decline in popularity. Many Americans could not afford the movies or live theatre, and the 15 or 25 cents admission cost to dance marathons was well worth it. The show went on day and night, for days, weeks, and months, and included drama, suffering, romance, sport, as well as cabaret and vaudeville acts.

Specialty numbers, weddings — both fake and real, and elimination derbies were all part of the contests.

Marathons were a cheap form of entertainment, which was a major reason for their success. The promoters financed the contests. But often they persuaded the townspeople to supply the food, materials, and medical needs for the contestants, and absorb the cost of advertisements in local newspapers. These commitments secured their involvement in the enterprise. “To Stage Dance Marathon,” The New York Times read “M.D. Crandall Announces Contest in Garden to Start June 10. Beginning on Sunday evening, and continuing until the last exhausted couple sinks to the floor.”

Though similar in form and governed by comparable regulations, marathons were often flavoured by the promoter’s own interests and reflected his style. Contests offered a blend of walking, dancing, vaudeville-cabaret acts, big bands, and athletic endurance and each catered to a particular audience. Promoter Hal Ross called his dance marathons “Family Man’s Night Club,” and urged the other promoters to run their contests as high-class legitimate businesses.

Unfortunately, most marathon promoters had well-earned reputations for their bad business practices, often leaving towns with bills unpaid and their contestants stranded, or holding bad checks.

These criminal and anti-social behaviours contributed to the opinion of the women’s leagues that marathons were immoral.  One of the few legitimate promoters who cared about the event, was not overly exploitive of his contestants, and because he paid his bills and debts, he became known as a top-of-the-line promoter.

The media helped to rope in audiences by dramatically selling the concept of dance marathons. Newspapers reported the numbers of hours that had passed and the number of participants who were still standing; radio shows reported on the dramatic narratives and events of the marathons as if they were soap operas, broadcasting titbits’ of gossip and telling listeners what occurred each day. Newspapers announced when the elimination derbies would take place and then printed the results. On July 27, 1930, The New York Times devoted an entire article to dance marathons around the country with such entries as this one:

“In Detroit, Mich, a marathon dance has lasted 106 days when the local authorities stopped it with five couples still on the floor.”

The media served itself and the promoters by keeping the public up on the action, especially if it was sensational. An article titled “15 Couples Remain in Jersey Dance,” that ran in The New York Times on June 27, 1928 proclaimed, “Jack White of New York proposed to Kitty Oliver of Chicago while dancing, and because she refused, punched her.”

Was this purely a plea for the attention of audiences and press, or had poor Jack White become fanatical due to his exhaustion? The newspaper and radio broadcasts of dance marathons created a drama in which Americans could take part. The marathon circuit was where small town residents often found their entertainment and drama. According to one source, the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest period of continuous dancing was twenty-four weeks and five days.

But there is no date provided for this record and it only indicates that it was set in Pittsburgh, and that the marathon was closed down for health reasons. If this was in fact the longest dance marathon, it is an impressive feat, considering that the winners had been dancing for six months—4,152 hours. The prize was the considerable sum of $1,000, which when translated to a rate of $0.24 per hour. The longest dance marathon, without derbies or athletic features, took place in Chicago, 1930-1931, lasting over nine months, and the winner was Kay Wise. Essentially, she danced, shuffled, and walked for approximately 6,400 hours. Perhaps her partner did not make it to the end with her because the longest solo record goes to Nobel “Kid” Chissell who danced for 468 hours alone.

Al Astro and Edna Gowacke hold the longest record for a marathon with athletic features in which they lasted for six months and thirteen days. In the end, it is unclear which of these records for endurance dance are correct because the documentation is questionable and conflicting. The Guinness Book of World Records states that Frankie Lane and Ruthie Smith logged in 3,480 hours, and historian Paul Sann gives the honour to June Havoc with 3,600 hours—five months and nine days.

From the moment the marathon participants passed from the outside community of Depression-era America into the environs of the marathon contest, they separated from one community and relocated and identified themselves with another. “Once a contestant was in, they became involved in the living drama that was part real and part showmanship.”

Although the process of passing from one world to another is an activity common to various groups, it is a ritual process that is acted out uniquely by each. The idea of social drama and performance has particular resonance in regard to the dance marathons because, though very real for the participants on the floor, for audiences and promoters it was purely entertainment.

Feeling effectively excluded from the American mainstream, participants and spectators sought fellowship with and comfort among others suffering a similar fate. Excluding the promoters’ inclination to know who the winning couples would be, the dance marathon, like other social dramas, was comprised of real life experience. The moment the music began and couples entered the dance floor they were performing for those who paid to watch the real life drama unfold.

c. 1930 Helen Jarm holds up Cliff Real, her third dance partner, during 1120 hours of marathon dancing.

c. 1930. Helen Jarm holds up Cliff Real, her third dance partner, during 1120 hours of marathon dancing.

Each couple would be assigned a number and as long as one person remained on the dance floor, the other was allowed to run off for quick food and bathroom breaks.

Each couple would be assigned a number and as long as one person remained on the dance floor, the other was allowed to run off for quick food and bathroom breaks.

The fact that basic needs were met in shifts allowed these marathons to go on for weeks on end. But this is where the dangers of the dance marathon set in for its participants.

The fact that basic needs were met in shifts allowed these marathons to go on for weeks on end. But this is where the dangers of the dance marathon set in for its participants.

May 9, 1932 Exhausted contestants try to keep moving during a grueling dance marathon that began March 31, more than 900 hours earlier, in the Bronx.

May 9, 1932. Exhausted contestants try to keep moving during a grueling dance marathon that began March 31, more than 900 hours earlier, in the Bronx.

Contestants no doubt had trouble clearly defining the lines of realism even more because their reality was marathon life and keeping the audience in their seats. For some marathoners, the decision to enter the contest likely was an easy one. But for those who continued to suffer on the dance floor, they must have felt desperately trapped.

Dancers were permitted to sleep on their partners while shuffling and dancing, and many dancers became sufficiently accustomed to this form of rest that they were able to get from six to nine hours of sleep throughout the day and night.124 People best suited to life on the marathon circuit were those who could thrive in organized systems, such as the army or even jail. While some could cope with the rules and remain in the competition, others faltered.

The performance and the entertainment produced by the contestants are for the audience, although, theoretically, even without the audience, the dancers’ community would exist because of the performance.

“The social drama, in short, shows how people actually live in the arenas of a particular type, how they pursue their ambitious or altruistic ends in them, and how, through significant choices made by important individuals or groups, the arena structure may itself be changed.”

The dance marathons were able to function as a smaller, more circumscribed vision of the outside community during the Great Depression. The dance marathon’s significance to America’s social drama is related to how, within its limited venue, it reflected American society at large; the macro-community. At the height of the phenomenon most if not all large cities were playing host to one or more contests.

While large marathon contests like at Madison Square Garden were highly influential, the mid-size, smaller city marathons had a purer correlation to social drama. Well-known promoters were disinclined to go to small towns where little money could be made, but that did not mean that marathons did not occur there. The promoters needed to set up dance marathons in locations that could draw a large crowd; they were obliged to assuage the locals, giving lip service, at least, to hometown values and getting the local people involved in advertising, employment, and, of course, dancing. The contests of smaller proportions held in midsize cities across the country reached out to the truly ordinary American – most likely, individuals under the burden of hard times. Not surprisingly, the dance marathon audience was populated by lower- or working-class people who could more closely identify with the participants and often came to root for their local favorite or a family member. Though the dance marathon could in no way offer permanent redress or solve the individual’s personal crisis, it did provide a palpable though impermanent solution to his or her problems. It provided momentary diversion. As a temporary redressive action, it allowed both spectators and participants to turn away for a moment from the crises that confronted the larger society and to focus solely upon a contest. Dance marathons were a coping mechanism, a way to deal with loss of jobs, income, homes, or family.

The dance halls mixed up the music selection from upbeat to slow dances to give contestants the rest or wake-up call they needed. Couples could dance, run, or walk, any movement would do. The moment they both went still they would be disqualified.

The dance halls mixed up the music selection from upbeat to slow dances to give contestants the rest or wake-up call they needed. Couples could dance, run, or walk, any movement would do. The moment they both went still they would be disqualified.

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Some dances also allowed for brief napping, but again, only as long as one person remained awake and moving in some way on the dance floor.

Once marathons morphed into entertainment spectacles that were fully produced, fixed and organized by promoters and businessmen, the marathon floor began to resemble a small private community.

When an individual decided to join a marathon there were certain admittance processes to complete and requirements to pass. Promoters were adamant about having healthy contestants who could withstand the stress of non-stop dancing and who could live in close quarters. Obviously, if one person was ill or had a problem (such as lice) he or she could quickly infect everyone.

Living communally 24 hours a day within close contact was a defining feature of the marathons. Promoters hired doctors and nurses to check the participants when they arrived and to monitor their health during the contest. In reality, health inspections were brief upon entering the contest and many things were simply overlooked.

The physical examination required a quick once-over for fleas or any other easily noticed ailment. A deep cough could preclude participation, as could an obviously contagious disease. The physical examination consisted of filling out a questionnaire.

It asked how old you were, if you’d ever been seriously stricken with a contagious disease, or if you were subject to fits. It also asked if you had body lice or if you were mentally ill.

Aspiring contestants were asked if they had tuberculosis or a venereal disease, although no confirming examination was conducted. The rules stated participants had to be 18, but without verification, the age requirement tended to be fudged or totally ignored.

One rule was closely followed: if any contestant had medical or recreational drugs, they were prohibited from joining. Promoters advertised their dance marathons as a “clean” form of entertainment for families, including children of all ages. Interestingly no women were asked if they were pregnant. Certainly, being upright for 24 hours could be injurious or even deadly for the mother or baby. In an interview in 1985, Edna Smith said she was pregnant when she entered her first marathon.

Smith: …The funny part of it was when I went into it I was about three months pregnant,…It didn’t take much to be accepted. They took your blood pressure, and listened to your heart…My husband came there to try to get me out of the contest. But he didn’t have a job and they needed a cook so he ended up being the cook…I don’t think the kind of physical they gave you back then would ever pass muster if they were gonna have an event like that today. I think that’s why the board of health closed us down…People maybe ruined their life forever by ruining their health. I could’ve hurt myself and my baby and not realized it. I did almost die when he was born.

The marathoners were under the total control of their “instructors.” Contestants were absolutely required to follow the strict rules imposed upon them and breaking them resulted in immediate elimination. The early marathons of 1923 had no certifiable rules. Although there were likely observers present to serve as witnesses, no rules were organized until the later 1920s.

Some rules heightened the entertainment value while other rules simply limited the individuality of the contestants. For instance, strict rules defined what qualified as “dancing” and determined when and how the contestants competed. Most marathon competitions ruled that staying on one’s feet while on the floor was a minimum requirement. Whether or not one partner was physically supporting the other made no difference. As long as a contestant’s knees did not touch the ground, couples could lean, lie upon, or literally carry one another.

Dance marathons weren’t just about dancing, they were also a way to make money as a spectator sport. People filled these dance halls, paying roughly 25 cents a pop to watch these cheery couples dance and then slowly fall apart.

Dance marathons weren’t just about dancing, they were also a way to make money as a spectator sport. People filled these dance halls, paying roughly 25 cents a pop to watch these cheery couples dance and then slowly fall apart.

Each event started off playful and energetic enough, but soon the smiles faded as exhaustion set in. They served as a test of both ones physical and mental endurance. They were probably quite the test on each couple’s relationship as well.

Each event started off playful and energetic enough, but soon the smiles faded as exhaustion set in. They served as a test of both ones physical and mental endurance. They were probably quite the test on each couple’s relationship as well.

It all began with the record of a woman named Alma Cummings. Alma danced for 27 hours, non-stop, going through six different partners. Everyone wanted to try, or watch others try. The craze was born.

It all began with the record of a woman named Alma Cummings. Alma danced for 27 hours, non-stop, going through six different partners. Everyone wanted to try, or watch others try. The craze was born.

In most cases, partners took turns sleeping and carrying each other’s weight so one of them might get some rest. Another crucial rule regulated the amount of time spent on the floor. Fifteen minutes out of every hour was used to get off their feet, sleep, use the toilets, or do anything else they deemed necessary. A loud siren alerted the marathoners and sent them shuffling back onto the floor at the end of their rest period. Elimination resulted when a contestant’s knees touched the floor or when a couple lost in an elimination derby. It was not unusual for one partner to become sick, injured, or too frail to continue safely, in which case, for health considerations, the sick individual would be asked to leave. In such an instance, the remaining solo contestant was given twenty-four hours to team up with another partner.

Alone, they would wander the dance floor awaiting the disqualification of another hapless individual with whose remaining partner they could then team up and continue their struggle.

Appearance, hygiene, and general behaviour were also subject to regulation. Women were required to wear skirts at all times, except in the late evening/early morning hours. Men and women were always to be showered and well attired. Gum chewing, spitting, fighting, and swearing were not allowed. If a contestant disrupted the ritual space by stepping off the floor — other than at break time — the team was immediately eliminated. Since participants were required to be standing and moving even while eating meals, tall tables were placed in the arena for meal times.

The promoters introduced rules that made the contests more difficult and entertaining, these rules served to secure the dancer’s liminal status in terms of the rites of passage. Women were required to wear skirts or pants at particular times. There was also the custom of couples accepting sponsorship from local shops, restaurants, etc.; in turn, they would agree to wear matching sweaters that promoted and advertised the sponsoring business. Although it is unlikely that these individuals would have normally done this, within the context of the marathon ritual process, they accepted this exchange as another aspect of their descent into liminality. Some rules were established to ensure that the dancers’ activities contributed to the overall spectacle and satisfaction of the spectators. Other rules existed to protect the contestants from their audiences. Marathoner June Havoc’s autobiography, describes her entry into the dance marathon circuit and relates a few of the many rules posted by the promoters.

 ‘This is a place of refined amusement. Whistling, stomping, and catcalls will not be tolerated.’ ‘Warning!’ a wall warned. ‘Contestants are not permitted to accept any candy, food, or liquids from spectators.’ ‘Do not touch the contestants.’ ‘No spitting.’ ‘Here’s a treat! Family Matinee: 2 bits for the whole family up to five people. Ringside seats, 25 cents extra.’

The rules for the audience both protected the contestants from rowdy individuals and added to the image of the dance marathon as a well-behaved and legitimate form of “family” entertainment. Paradoxically, some rules attempted to formulate the marathon as a fun competition with no intentions beyond non-stop dancing. Rules that defined elimination derbies were designed to purge couples from the contest and cruelly aimed specifically to exhibit and exploit the dancers. Some derbies were inhumane and demonstrated how the contestants were truly in a marginal position and needed protection from unscrupulous promoters and emcees.

One of the many rules posted upon the wall before a first elimination derby.

“We had a new set of rules, too.” A freshly painted sign read:

  1. ONE FALL AND OUT.
  2. DOG COLLARS WORN FROM 8P.M. TO 8A.M.
  3. NO ONE ALLOWED TO WAKE A SLEEPING DANCER.”

Some dance marathon promoters required the contestants to wear dog collars while participating in elimination derbies. Marathoners might also have to hold on to their partners with these collars while racing. Altogether another horrific display of inhumane entertainment spectacle within some marathons.

At a time when many Americans were struggling to survive the economic collapse of the Great Depression, dance marathons provided the perfect performance. Marathons reflected the triumphs and difficulties of the period and consequently became a mixed blessing—a source of both pleasure and discontent to many Americans. They also dramatized an essential human truth. Success would always demand endurance. Only the obstacles would be different.

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  • FornaK

    Ahhh, I know Jack’s pain, as I have been in that positions, a number of times. It wasn’t due to a dance marathon though!
    I hope to make better decisions as I get older ;-)

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