Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • ‘Ladies and gentlemen, how long can they last?’: The disturbing 1930s craze of dance marathons 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, how long can they last?’: The disturbing 1930s craze of dance marathons 

Arthur Pita’s new work of dance theatre tells the desperate story of couples who risked death-by-dancing during the Great Depression.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

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.


By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

25 July 2014 at 10.29am

This article has been categorised Dance and tagged by Arthur Pita, dance marathon, Great Depression, history, Nobody's Baby – The World's Greatest Show, Production

This article has 4 comments

  1. Anne responded on 29 July 2014 at 10:27am Reply

    I am disappointed that no-one has posted any comment here about this amazing show so here goes!
    Well done Arthur! By the end of the evening I had been totally drawn into the world of the Marathon Dance and felt emotionally involved with the dancers . It was exciting to see their technical skill combined with such individual characterization, accompanied by live music and the great performance of Ewan Wardrop's MC. The use of community dancers was most effective and seamless. Almost most moving of all was the performance by the dancers during the "interval" as they circled in ever-changing formations in a dreamlike state. I would love to see more such work at Covent Garden.
    If I have criticisms they are minor and do not relate to the performance. I would have liked more information about the production and performers than was provided on the handout sheet. The the admission process was chaotic - if another such show was to be put on in the Paul Hamlyn hall I would hope a better entry process could be found.

    PS I also attended Cubania this week which (for me) was disappointing, lacking any real coherence and emotion.

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 29 July 2014 at 12:04pm

      Hi Anne,

      Glad you enjoyed the production. We'll pass your comments about the handout/admission to the Publications and Front of House teams.


      ROH Content Producer

  2. emma responded on 13 October 2015 at 12:26pm Reply

    fantastic article learnt so much from it its surprising what people did back then

  3. Dectora responded on 20 April 2017 at 10:25am Reply

    These were horrible events, relying on desperation. There is a painting of a marathon dance in the RA show in London, where it is clear that the stronger partner is carrying the weaker. When I once went without sleep for a long period, I had hallucinations.

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional