March 31, 1923: Dance Until You Drop!

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A Brief History

On March 31, 1923, the first U.S. dance marathon ended in New York City but began a strange fad with sometimes fatal consequences!

Digging Deeper

Less than a decade later, in 1932, a young woman dropped dead after dancing non-stop for 48 hours in a dance marathon!  And when the police raided a ballroom during a Marathon World Championship, the promoters simply transferred the contestants, who were still dancing, into a van.  From there they were taken onto a sloop, a small sailing ship, which sailed out of territorial waters and so beyond the area of police control.  The plan worked perfectly, until the contestants got seasick.

Marathon dancing competitions, which were the rage in the 1930’s, were more than just tiring, and often torturous, dance sessions.  Contestants had their teeth extracted during these marathons; others got married.  A few even went mad!

If you are wondering why so many people bothered to take part in these competitions, it is because the prizes were simply too good to resist – the top prize was as much as $2,000!  You may not think that large enough a sum to entice thousands of people to sacrifice sleep and food for days on end, but remember, 60 years ago, $2,000 was a lot of money.  Plus, these marathons took place during the period when times were hard.

To win or survive almost to the end of a marathon usually meant that one could become an instant celebrity.  The rules of these seemingly endless dancing sessions were strict: out of every hour, contestants had to spend 45 minutes in constant motion.  Only 15 minutes were allowed for rest (not sleep), first aid and toilet needs.  And this grueling schedule went on for 24 hours a day.

It was pure entertainment for the large audience which often turned up to watch.  Many brought presents for their favorite contestants.  Others placed bets on the final outcome.  And there were some who simply enjoyed watching the judges mercilessly torture the weaker contestants by speeding the music and flicking with towels at their swollen legs.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest marathon lasted over 30 weeks; however, in 1933, this form of ‘entertainment’ was banned in the USA.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever participated in a dance marathon?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Calabria, Frank M.  Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad (Popular Entertainment and Leisure Series).  Popular Press 1, 1993.

Martin, Carol.  Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture in the 1920s and 1930s (Performance Studies).  Univ Pr of Mississippi, 1994.


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