Dance Marathons Could Last For Months During The Great Depression

Dance marathons were the hottest craze of the 1920s.
Dance Marathons Could Last For Months During The Great Depression

During the Great Depression, crowds would gather in gymnasiums and other venues across the country to watch couples dance. For hours, dancers would move to the music, some taking small breaks, while others would eat while continuing to boogie. And when the time came for spectators to go home, the dancing would continue, and the crowds would come back at the same time the next night.

Despite peaking in the 1930s, the birth of the dance marathons predates the economic crisis and is usually attributed to Alma Cummings, who danced for 27 hours straight in 1923. It is said that six male partners danced with her, with every one of them eventually quitting due to exhaustion. After Cummings' feat made headlines, other dancers tried to one-up her, and the record was quickly surpassed. 

The rise of dance marathons hit a sweet spot in an overlap of cultural changes. First, more open displays of light sexuality were becoming common, and everyone wanted a chance to dance with a partner in public. Second, Americans loved records. Starting with the modern Olympic Games, people were out to prove that they were the best at anything they tried. Holding a dance partner in public (or being a weirdo who just wanted to watch) and going for a world record was the sort of activity that just perfectly fit into the period.

The rules of a dance marathon were fairly standardized. Couples had to be moving their feet to the music at all times, and if someone's knees touched the ground or if they stopped dancing, they were eliminated. Every hour, dancers would get 15 minutes to rest, and beds were brought in for them to nap in. Nurses would treat them during this time as well. Once the break was over, though, dancing had to resume. The last dancer standing was the winner.

National Photo Company Collection/Wiki Commons

 Don't they look so happy to dance until they nearly die?

What truly caused a boom in the dance marathon craze was the onset of the Great Depression. It was a form of entertainment able to light to the American public as some sort of Depression distraction during its darkest days.

Dance marathons had already grown, but now the circumstances around them were changing. Participants weren't dancing because records were trendy anymore; they were dancing because the prize money was serious. A dancer could theoretically make more for winning a major dance marathon than they could for doing a year of work. Plus, dancers were rewarded for staying in the contests, as they were given food during the marathons. It sounds morbid, but dancing endlessly was a way to keep a person indoors and fed.

The experience changed for audiences as well. Before the Depression, spectators came to witness feats of endurance, but when everyone was struggling, dance marathons became a source of schadenfreude. Sure, a person's life may have sucked, but at least they were doing better than the folks dancing for months on end, straining to even stay upright.

And the dancing did sometimes last for months. The king and queen of dance marathons were Callum DeVillier and Vonnie Kuchinski; the pair from Minnesota danced for 3,780 hours, five months straight, from December 1932 to June 1933. For winning the Somerville, Massachusetts dance marathon, they netted $1,000. This was the height of the craze, and no dancer was ever known to match their Saturday night everyday fever. 

Then the dance marathons then began to die down. Displays of public dancing like this, which had thrived in the 1920s, were not as socially accepted as the '30s rolled on. Besides the moral panic of dancing, there were legitimate health concerns as well. There were accounts of participants collapsing or even dying from exhaustion, and cities started banning the spectacle. The Somerville marathon that made them legends was held in this Boston suburb rather than the city itself because dance marathons were banned in the city proper. 

The final nail in the marathon coffin was hammered once World War II broke out. Suddenly, everyone was busy with the war effort, and no one had either the time to dance for months or the need to watch others suffer for amusement. Dance marathons occasionally still happen as small fundraiser activities, but otherwise, they're mostly a thing of the past. 

Sadly, DeVillier and Kuchinski don't even hold the Guinness World Record for longest dance marathon anymore. The rules of the record changed so that dancing had to be truly continuous, and because the marathon win involved 15-minute breaks, their victory was erased. As of this writing, the current record, set in 2018, clocked in at 126 hours. So one hour less than it took for that dude trapped by the boulder to decide to cut his arm off.

Top Image: Library Of Congress

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