"Black" Dance Marathons (not racial,) Continuous motion or "Derbies" can be traced back to 1364 in London and became extremely popular during the depression years in the United States during the 1920s-30s as many out of work people would compete for money prizes, as well as some stars of some kind seeking publicity. Anyone could enter these pageants of fatigue and endurance contests.
On March 30, 1923 the first official dance marathon in the U.S. took place at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. It was won by a 32 year old dance teacher named Alma Cummings who danced with six different partners (all younger than she) remaining in motion on the dance floor for 27 hours, ending in a flourish with a twirling waltz that thrilled her audience. One audience member observed that her achievement, "challenged the primacy of youth and the preeminence of male fortitude." Within weeks, the fad had swept the country.
Initially, women were the main record holders of most of the early contests, wearing out multiple partners in the process. In the early contests, records were usually not set by couples but by individuals who traded in their partners as they tired. Local dance academies across the country began holding marathons, McMillan's Dancing Academy in Houston, Texas being one of the first to capitalize on the dance craze monetarily. McMillan charged admission to spectators and gave large cash prizes to any record-breaking winners. He encouraged the dancers to entertain the crowds in any way possible but he also cared for and protected his contestants. But his example would go on to change the dance marathon from one of skill and endurance by an individual to something more sinister.
Other sports and entertainment entrepreneurs saw the money-making potential by commercializing and standardizing the contests. The contests became endless, grueling endurance marathons that could go on for months. They were no longer about a dancer's "15 minutes of fame" and more about making money for the promoters. This was non-stop entertainment with a Master of Ceremonies, live bands, specialty entertainment, audience participation, nurses and food servers. Rules dictated when participants could dance, eat, sleep, bathe and use the toilet. Contestants had a 15 minute rest period for every hour of dancing during which they could sleep, change clothes or get a massage (at their own expense).
The contests became more about physical stamina and endurance and had nothing to do with technical skill or dancing finesse. They were often called Walkathons because the participants didn't really have to dance, just cling together and shuffle their feet. Every so often they were made to dance a waltz, fox trot or Charleston or do a quick sprint around the floor earning the winners extra money and putting some of them out of the contest. If one of the contestant's knees hit the floor, the couple would be eliminated. Often the contests were stacked or rigged in favor of certain couples by the floor judges or the emcees who were hired by the promoter.
Audiences were encouraged to interact with the dancers, choosing favorites, making wagers, chatting with them and throwing money at them called "sprays" or "silver showers". Contestants sometimes were offered sponsorships by local businesses for a small stipend and wore their advertising on their clothing. Couples also sold autographed pictures to their fans, often for 10 cents a picture. During the Depression, some participants saw the contests as an opportunity for employment, meals and a roof over their heads. They were lured by promises of performance contracts, thousands of dollars and national fame. Some dancers became professionals and traveled from one marathon to the next. While some participants did find work as movie extras, very few found fame. Red Skelton and June Havoc were the exceptions.
The longest running dance marathon lasted for 22 weeks and 3 1/2 days. Some dancers would do many things to help them continue, one ladies success was due to "Pickling her feet" before the contests (yes, just like making pickles).
Deep into the Depression the dancers became a metaphor for the national pain experienced by the country. For the audiences, seeing the pain and exhaustion on the dance floor of people more hard up than they were made their own struggles more bearable. By 1935, The Billboard magazine claimed,"the average attendance at an evening's performance of a Walkathon is about 2500 people". Women made up of more than 75% of the audiences, becoming drawn into the spectacle by lurid tales of romance, hardship and heartbreak among the dancing couples. Promoters staged "Marathon Weddings" of contestants but most of the stories and "weddings" were stunts pulled to take advantage of the emotional attachment they created in the viewers. The Marathons became a combination of today's soap operas and "Survivor" for the 1930's audience.
As the marathons wore on for months, promoters found new and more brutal ways to torture the contestants to keep their audiences engaged. During the day contestants were allowed to stumble along together, sometimes reading, shaving, knitting, eating or doing other daily activities to stave away boredom while clinging to each other. Individuals would tie their wrists together and slip them around their partner's neck as a means to take turns sleeping without falling to the floor. Women carried their sleeping partners despite the differences in height and weight and it was observed that, "It was the women who kept up and the men who mostly faltered." Although no couple could win without equal partnership, marathons leveled the playing field for both partners in such a way that the strength, stamina and perseverance of the female participants was demonstrated publicly in a way that was new and empowering for some.
At night, when bigger crowds were expected, live music was played and contestants were expected to dance, perform skits and were subjected to grueling contests designed to eliminate (and humiliate) as many of them as possible. "Grinds" were continuous dance periods with no rest. During the Grinds, the usual tricks for keeping your partner awake (slaps, pin pricks, pinches, shaking or talking) were not allowed and would continue until one or more couples were worn down to the ground, literally, by exhaustion.
Other endurance trials were employed as well. A typical program for contestants who had already danced for over 1,000 hours (about 41 days) looked like this:
Monday: Zombie Treadmills (one hour duration)
Tuesday: Figure-eight races (25 laps)
Wednesday: Elimination lap races (male contestants)
Thursday: Dynamite Sprints
Friday: Heel and Toe Derbies
Saturday: Elimination races (female contestants)
Sunday: The Argonne Forest
Zombie Treadmills involved blindfolded contestant teams, often chained or tied together, racing one another. These contests, called Sprints, were brutal and effective for quickly eliminating all but the top three couples and ending the marathon. The longest recorded marathon went on for 4,152 hours and 30 minutes, nearly over 5 1/2 months. The longest dance marathon without contests or athletic features took place in Chicago from 1930-1931 and lasted over nine months. The winner, Kay Wise, essentially danced, shuffled and walked for over 6,400 hours, wearing out partners in the process. The longest solo record goes to Nobel "Kid" Chissell who danced alone for 468 hours, nearly 20 days. June Havoc, an actor on Broadway and on film, who entered her first marathon at the age of 14 wrote of her experiences,"Our degradation was entertainment: sadism was sexy, masochism was talent."
Marathons were not popular everywhere. Many towns banned them early on but they were a powerful and popular form of entertainment. Movie theater owners protested that they lost business when marathons were staged in their towns. Church groups protested them on moral grounds (too much full body contact) and for humanitarian reasons. And the police felt the contests attracted too many undesirables. But for the people involved, it was hard to ignore the money to be made during difficult economic times. Newspapers, radio stations and sponsoring businesses made money from advertising, venue owners and municipalities made money from fees and licenses. Food venders made money off of the spectators and the contestants and nurses, floor judges, emcees and janitors found employment. Dance marathon historian, Carol Martin states that nearly every American city with a population of 50,000 or more hosted at least one endurance marathon.
By the late 30's the marathons began to dwindle, partly due to laws being passed and partly due to promoters struggling to find "virgin spots" where no marathons had been staged. WW2 finally put an end to the contests as both participants and audiences went to work and to war.