25 July 2014 at 10.29am | 4 Comments
Dance marathons – also known as ‘walkathons’, ‘bunion derbies’ and ‘jitterathons’ – were an enormously popular phenomenon in America in the early 20th century. Introduced during the roaring twenties, the contests – in which participants danced non-stop for as long as physically possible – were in keeping with the wild, freewheeling attitude of the era. Alma Cummings was the first American to take on the challenge in 1923, dancing at the Audubon Ballroom in New York for 27 consecutive hours and outlasting six partners. This feat of endurance inspired others, and a craze for the dance contests spread like wildfire across America as dancers attempted to win fame by breaking records. Spectators began to attend the marathons, which were publicized in the press, and, as their popularity grew, promoters and sponsors began to stage large-scale urban events where the dancing took centre stage.
Having begun as a popular product of 1920s liberated living, dance marathons took on a far more sinister significance during the Great Depression of the following decade. Dancers whose primary aim had once been to break records now competed against one another for 24 hours a day and weeks on end, desperate to win prize money, or sometimes just for the illusory security of a roof over their heads and regular meals. They no longer performed the popular dances of the day but instead tended to shuffle around the dance floor, expending as little energy as possible while adhering to the rules that they must remain in hold and keep moving without their knees touching the floor. Contestants were given 15 minutes of rest time each hour, during which men and women rushed to ‘cots’ in separate rest areas to sleep. Once back on the floor, they often took it in turn to support one another’s weight so that one of them could get some extra rest.
For 1930s audiences, who only had to pay a few cents to watch dance marathons, the contests offered a reprieve from the drudgery of daily life and occupation for the unemployed many. Spectators returned every day to witness the strangely fascinating spectacle of contestants stumbling across the dance floor and going through the rituals of washing, sleeping and eating in the public glare. Promoters latched on to this surge in popularity and used various methods to boost ticket sales. These included targeting ‘virgin spots’ (towns where contests had not yet been staged), introducing professional dancers towards whom the marathons were inevitably skewed and dramatizing the relationships of the couples on the dance floor – sometimes even staging walkathon weddings.
As dance marathons became more popular, they also became increasingly controversial. Authorities were concerned about the morality of the events – both the exhibition of female bodies and suggested links between marathons and sexual exploitation were causes for concern, as were corrupt promoters who abandoned shows, leaving contestants and other employees desolate. As the Depression took further hold and dancers' desperation increased, the marathons also became more dangerous, with contestants succumbing all too often to hallucinatory ‘squirrelly’ states in their exhaustion, and even risking death.
Towards the end of the 1930s there was an attempt to regulate dance marathons, partly in order to resist the growing pressure to ban them. These ordinances served to do little more than discourage promoters. This, as well as a change in social attitude as America emerged from the Depression, meant that marathons, and the fight against physical adversity that they had come to represent, no longer drew in the crowds. By the end of World War II, they had died out altogether.