The dark history of dance marathons

    If you think dancing for 30 hours in a tent is torturous enough, imagine dancing up to six months just for a meal and the fleeting chance of a cash prize.

    Generations have been wearing their feet out on the dance floor since the 1920s long before the charity dance marathon, such as Northwestern's, was born – and these weren't all the euphoria-fuelled affairs that they are today.

    The dance marathon as a cultural phenomenon started in 1923, when 32-year-old Alma Cummings gained national fame for dancing continuously for 27 hours with six different partners.

    It wasn't the only crazy fad then – bizarre record-breaking contests, ranging from flagpole sitting and mountain climbing, were all the rage in the United States.

    However, the concept of dancing non-stop for public glory caught on, as many strove to break record after record.

    Local dance studios nationwide added to the frenzy by holding their own marathons. For example, McMillan’s Dancing Academy in Houston charged admission for spectators, rewarded record-breakers with cash and encouraged contestants to entertain the crowds.

    People would flock to ballrooms to be entertained by marathon dancing and some would be referred to as "walkathons" or "corn and callus carnivals" since dancing was considered sinful in some quarters. Prize money could be as large as thousands or dollars.

    These affairs focused more on endurance than ability. In some contests, couples would fox trot or waltz for as long as possible. Judges would make sure that their knees did not touch the ground and that they were at least in a dance position and keeping their feet moving.

    The popularity of dance marathons peaked in the 1930s, but they took on a darker tone.

    Sports and entertainment promoters also realized that such events could be commercialized as a form of mass entertainment. Contests that could drag on for weeks, or up to six months, became widespread. Weaved into these affairs were performances, live band busic, and specialty numbers, all fuelled by promoters' desires to make as much as money as possible. Dramatic situations such as races and elimination contests were staged just to force the marathons to continue for months.

    Such marathons took a huge mental and physical toll on contestants, but participation continued because of the economic desperation during the Depression.

    Dancers would participate in such marathons just for the meals provided and the chance to win cash. Once a partner's knees hit the floor, the couple would be disqualified. Some hoped for film careers, but only a minority who had been veteran dancers before their competition days, such as June Havoc and Red Skelton, made it after the marathons ended.

    Society generally disapproved of the cultural phenomenon, and was even banned in some areas. For example, Seattle banned the practice in 1928 after a woman attempted suicide for coming in fifth in a contest after 19 days of dancing. Washington state also banned the contests in 1937.

    The gruelling nature of these marathons also influenced literature and film. A 1936 book called They Shoot Horses, Don't They? details a Depression-era marathon that ends with a shooting and murder. Sydney Pollack adapted this into a 1969 film of the same name.

    Thanks to ordinances prohibiting the contests and the onset of World War II, dance marathons faded in popularity after the '30s.

    So the next time you tremble at the thought of dancing non-stop for 30 hours, just be glad college dance marathons are a lot more humane, and benefit charitable causes rather than fuel economic greed or desperation.


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