Written for the U.S.A. Twenties Encyclopedia. Copyright Renee Camus, © 2004
The article will be used in a copyrighted work, published by Grolier Publishing, an imprint of Scholastic Library Publishing, in 2005.
The 1920s was a period of wild living and fleeting fads, among which was a craze for strange record-breaking contests. Flagpole sitting, mountain climbing, even Charles Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight were contests of self-endurance and human record setting. Dance Marathons started in a similar vein, a celebration of life, public spirit, and nationalism, and hope for brief fame. However, they developed from a voluntary, fun activity to one of the most widely attended and controversial forms of commercialized live theater.
The craze began in 1923, when 32-year old Alma Cummings danced non-stop for 27 hours, wearing out six different partners, breaking the previous record set in Britain and gaining brief national acclaim for her feat. This inspired others (more often women) who wished to share her glory and break her record. More local spectacles and contests were held, which dancers could enter solo or with a specific partner, celebrating the spirit and endurance of both winners and losers.
Dancers defied protests and restrictions in striving to break previously set records, propelled by the excitement of competition, the possibility of brief fame, and cheered on by family and friends. Local dance studios all over the country, such as McMillan’s Dancing Academy in Houston, held marathons. McMillan, the proprietor, set a number of firsts in the promotion and development of marathon dancing. He charged admission to spectators and awarded a record-breaking winner with a cash prize. He embraced a flair for the spectacular and encouraged contestants to entertain the crowds in any way they could. However, he also seemed to care for and protect his contestants in a way that vanished in later marathons.
After 1923, marathons began to change shape. Sports and entertainment promoters realized that good money could be made from commercializing and standardizing the contests. Unlike flagpole sitting or mountain climbing, dancing had movement and variety but took place in a stationary venue, perfect for entertaining audiences. The contests became endless, grueling marathons that would continue for weeks, regulated by rules and heavily promoted to audiences. No longer driven by dancers’ record setting or “fifteen-minutes-of-fame,” these events were staged and structured by promoters, fueled by the money that could be made. Presented on a much grander scale, these marathons offered non-stop entertainment hosted by a Master of Ceremonies and threaded with performances and specialty numbers, live band music, and audience participation, in addition to the contest element.
Each marathon had its own set of rules, demanding more from their participants and dictating a way of life for the around-the-clock dancers (not to mention judges, nurses, vendors and many others involved in the event), governing dancing, sleeping, eating, bathing and using the toilet. Rules often demanded that couples register and stay together, stating that if one partner dropped out, the other had to leave too. They regulated rest periods: fifteen minutes for every hour of dancing, often in separate quarters for men and women, during which they could sleep, change clothes, or have a massage (which contestants themselves paid for). Though healthier for the dancers than the earlier non-stop contests, these rest periods allowed the marathons to continue for days, weeks, and even months.
Though these contests were never a test of finesse or technical ability, later marathons were much more a question of stamina and endurance; outliving your opponents, often at the risk of health and well being. In a 1920s reality show – Survivor with a twist – couples would dance popular dances of the day, including fox trot, waltz, and Charleston, for as long as possible, while judges watched to verify their knees did not touch the ground. In fact, rules stated that contestants did not need to dance as long as they stood in a dance position and kept their feet moving. Every so often however, they were made to do a sprint or quick competition of waltz or fox trot, earning the winning couple prestige and extra money.
To break the monotony of constant dancing for spectators, promoters added distractions, usually performances both by contestants and by guest artists. They invited professional dancers and teachers to enter the contest, often paying them to participate. Specialty acts from vaudeville and burlesque, exhibition dancers, even boxing matches, were all added to the spectacle. In addition, the competition element and constant proximity of the dancers combined with exhaustion and mental stress created real dramas and conflicts, which promoters exploited and publicity and the press spread, especially via the new media venue, the tabloids. Promoters would assure a good show by hiring eccentric and ostentatious personalities sure to create exciting situations. They arranged for “unexpected” guest appearances by local celebrities such as theatrical agents and performers. Equivalent to today’s reality shows, the contests combined professional and amateur entertainment, simultaneously creating real life and theatricalized drama.
Contestants and spectators alike bought into the staged excitement and competition. Spectators could cheer, make wagers and root for their favorite team, even interacting with the dancers, chatting with them and throwing money. Contestants were enticed by the potential for fame and fortune, from prizes of several thousand dollars to performing contracts, and were fueled by the audiences’ support and applause. Like professional wrestling, the contests were fixed, but both sides bought into the simulated reality of it and participated heartily, provoking each other and egging each other on. The newest episodic entertainment, spectators would return day after day to follow their heroes and see more drama unfold.
Many contestants, considering themselves theater professionals based on their marathon experience, traveled the country competing in one marathon after another. Especially during the depression, marathons offered work, shelter, food, and potential for extra money and more. Contestants hoped to have careers in films, and though many took roles as extras, only the few who were veteran performers before entering, like June Havoc and Red Skelton, found real fame and entertainment careers after their marathon days.
During the Depression, marathons reflected the status of America at the time. A heavily staged form of forced labor, marathons relied on the amount of time spectators and contestants, out of work victims of the Depression, had on their hands. Promoters found new ways of forcing the marathons to continue for months, enlisting entertainers and staging dramatic situations. They established ways of adding tension and excitement to the dreary competition, including races and complicated tests of endurance for the contestants; elimination contests that likened the marathons to the horrors of spectator sports in the Roman Coliseum. The chance at fame and fortune was there, but at the cost of humiliation at least, and at most, mental and physical health problems or even death. By the depressed 1930s, marathons took on new meanings: the pain and misery of the contestants helped spectators feel better about their own situations, while the prize represented a hope of the American Dream for contestants, probably never to be realized. It was certainly a far cry from the fun, voluntary sport that it had been in the 1920s.
The Dance Derby of the Century
On June 10, 1928, Milton Crandall, veteran promoter and publicist of theatrical events, staged a monumental contest at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He called this national, large-scale marathon “The Dance Derby of the Century,” making the event unique and setting the tone for marathons to follow. Exemplary of the changes dance marathons were adopting, the event challenged the attention, strength and endurance of both dancers and spectators.
This “Derby” was the most famous and financially successful of the marathons, especially before the 1930s, and was the first to fully exploit the thin line between reality and theater. Creating a combined atmosphere of horse shows, ballrooms, and vaudeville, the event offered everything from exhibition dancers to variety performers to Shipwreck Kelly – the record-holder for flagpole sitting, to special “unexpected” guests such as Texas Guinan, Prohibition’s most infamous speakeasy owner. Crandall knew how to exploit tabloids and press to cover his show, scandalizing and dramatizing the event’s daily occurrences. The contest ran until 2pm on June 30, when the health commissioner (possibly another publicity stunt?) came in and closed it down. The $5,000 prize money was split among the remaining eight couples.
Copyright Renee Camus, © 2004