Every generation has a fad or two. Those things that youngsters do because everyone else is doing it. Perhaps they squish themselves into telephone booths or flagpole sitting. During the Great Depression, a bizarre fad became popular across the United States. A fad that preyed upon the desperation of many: dance marathons.
Dance marathons don’t sound very scary or dangerous but, taken to the extreme, they could be both. The Washington Post made mention of competitive dance marathons as early as 1910. “The marathon dance is the latest form that the asininity of responsible persons in small and large cities has taken,” stated an article from April 14, 1910. “Prize fights are condemned and prohibited in many cities. So are bullfights and cockfights. The marathon dance, however, goes on undisturbed.” According to the article, the fad was sweeping across the country at a rapid pace.
Dance marathons emerged on a larger scale in the 1920s and early 1930s. It started as a fun competition to see who could last the longest dancing or who could dance five miles the fastest. There was a modest prize and some bragging rights that went along with it. As the country fell into a depression, the fad took a darker turn. The cash prize went up and the event organizers enticed contestants with food and shelter only if they kept dancing. The event was open to the public who, in turn, would pay to watch the exhausted couples sway back and forth and, perhaps even, witness a contestant faint. Promoters would play up the dancers’ stories in order to keep audience members coming back to check up on their favorite ‘performer.’ Ticket prices were usually set around .25 cents (about $3 today) and was cheap entertainment that helped to forget about the country’s dire circumstances.
There were rules but each event varied. Most dance marathons had rest periods built into the event. These scheduled rest time allowed dancers to sit down, eat, shower, and even take a nap before having to be back on the floor at an arranged time. The amenities at one of these dance marathons was described by the New York Times in great detail. “Around the arena where the dance marathoners were congregated were ninety-one booths, fitted out with chairs and canvas cots and trainers waiting with Swedish masseurs and masseuses,” the article described. “The rules of the contest call for an hour of dancing; then fifteen minutes of rest, during which time the [dancers] may eat, sleep, or walk about – although little provision has been made for the last.”
The allowance of rest and food allowed these marathons to last days, weeks, and even months. A 1928 dance marathon in Chicago lasted twenty-three days. If that was not enough, two years later, a dance marathon in the same city lasted over 2,780 hours (over 115 days)! Hundreds of couples signed up for an opportunity to win the prize money, usually around $5,000 but some as low as $1,500. Many of the couples came from out of state to have a chance to win such a large amount of money. Even if they didn’t win, they had food and shelter – something some of them didn’t have due to the Great Depression.
With dance marathons came health issues. Many of the events had physicians on site to deal with fainting dancers or injuries that occurred. Ben Solar, one of the many dance marathon contestants, had to be ‘revived’ on the dance floor with cold water and smelling salt by the physician after a couple of hours into a tri-state dance marathon. His partner, Vera Sheppard, actually won the contest by dancing with relief partners for sixty-nine hours of uninterrupted dancing. It was also not uncommon for dancers to be admitted into the hospital due to their exhaustion from dancing. Frank Quinn, after participating in a New York dance marathon, was admitted into the city’s General Hospital after dropping out of the dance. Doctors believed he was suffering from hemorrhages. Cases of deaths as well as people falling into comas were also reported.
Law enforcement and government officials tried to stop these marathons. Some saw the dance marathon organizers as taking advantage of the desperation of those in need. Even before the Great Depression, law enforcement were critical about the events. Chicago’s Chief of Police Morgan A. Collins was quoted in 1923 as saying, “I believe that these endurance dances are a form of suicide and certainly the police would not be justified in permitting suicide on a wholesale scale. It is a fad, but it is dangerous.” Others, such as the Women’s Missionary Society of Virginia, wanted to see these dances come to halt for “the interest of good health, clean morals and Christian ideals.”
Doctors’ hands were tied in what they could do about the dance marathons as well. Since health commissioners usually found that the events do not affect public health as a whole, they had little jurisdiction to shut them down. Dr. Arnold Kegel, Chicago’s health commissioner, was quite clear with his opinion on the marathons as being “absolutely disgraceful and harmful to health.” He also believed that “no civilized community ought to permit such a disgusting spectacle to continue, but people are privileged to make fools of themselves whenever and wherever they will.”
District commissioners in Washington D.C. adopted a police regulation in February 1932 that prohibited marathon dances or “any dance or contest in which an individual shall participate for more than a total of 12 hours in any consecutive 24 hours.” In 1933, a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature to prohibit marathon dancing. A penalty of $500 or a three month imprisonment would be doled out to those who broke this law.
More and more cities and states passed statutes outlawing dance marathons. In the 1970s, dance marathons had a short resurgence. This time, however, it was usually to raise money for charity and were better regulated. Today, colleges and high schools raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network or other charities through dance marathons.
“The marathon dance,” Washington Post, April 14, 1910.
“Tri-State dance marathon ends in 69 hours; Police stop it after woman breaks record,” New York Times, April 18, 1923.
“Marathon dance work, play, or form of suicide?” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 22, 1923.
“Women in conference fight marathon dance.” Washington Post, April 26, 1923.
“91 couples start in dance marathon,” New York Times, June 11, 1928.
“66 couples survive in dance marathon,” New York Times, June 13, 1928.
“Court upsets ban on dance marathon,” New York Times, June 30, 1928.
“Dance record of 572 hours set here in negro marathon,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 25, 1928.
“Indianapolis acts to halt marathon dances,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 19, 1930.
“Two pairs left in dance marathon after 2,780 hours,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 6, 1930.
“Commission acts to ban future marathon dances,” Washington Post, February 3, 1932.
“May bar marathon dance,” New York Times, January 15, 1933.
“Dance marathon nets $40,000 in cancer aid,” New York Times, April 12, 1976.
“Dance marathon funds to go to Cancer Society,” Washington Post, October 19, 1978.
“NU couples bear up under the blisters to battle leukemia in dance marathon,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 4, 1990.