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Mar 18

The Dance Marathon Fad of the 1920s and 1930s

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Still image from “Dance marathon fad reaches new peak–outtakes.”

March 21st, from 10am to midnight, is the annual Dance Marathon at the University of South Carolina. “It is an annual spring event that celebrates the culmination of a year’s worth of efforts to raise financial and emotional support for the patients of Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital located in Columbia.” While USC’s Dance Marathon is a fun charity event that lasts 14 hours and raises money for a worthy local cause, dance marathons during their 20th century peak were often grueling contests spanning weeks or months.

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Dancers getting into beds for a few moments of rest.

These Fox Movietone News outtakes were filmed on August 1, 1930. The footage covers the tail end of a dance marathon that began almost 16 weeks earlier, on April 11. On the day this story was filmed, the dancers had been going for 2,664 hours, breaking the old world record by over 863 hours. More than 50 pairs began the competition, with just three couples and one single man remaining on the dance floor by August. In this particular event, contestants were permitted to take five-minute naps every hour. The event would end on August 7, 1930, with Anne Gerry and Mike Gouvas taking the $2,650 dollar prize. According to an A.P. piece in the Sterling Daily Gazette on August 8, the pair had danced for 2,831 hours, four minutes, and 30 seconds.

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One dancer supports her partner as they continue to move.

The narrator claims that, “the world recently has repeatedly given evidence of a liking for sports and activities of an endurance nature.” Dance marathons began to gain popularity in 1923 as a fun endurance event. By the Depression era 1930s, these competitions were often made into exhausting and exploitative spectacles that abused the financial desperation of the contestants. Though dancers were expected to keep moving 24 hours a day with only short breaks for sleeping every hour or two, most were content with shelter and steady meals, along with the hope of a big payoff if they were the last couple standing.

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Still image from “Dance marathon fad reaches new peak–outtakes.”

Marathons could last several months at a time, and objections were voiced to these spectacles even in the late 1920s. A New York World piece published in the Decatur Evening Herald on June 25, 1928 comments on the “idiotic” dance marathon taking place at Madison Square Garden. When published, the event had only begun ten days earlier, but the concern for participants was already intense. “Who knows the ultimate effect that it will have on these couples? Nervous collapse, depleted vitality and badly injured feet seem highly probable, with insanity perhaps as quite possible… We are staging then, a cruel and unseemly show.” This opinion seemed to grow over the years, and as the 1930s progressed, many towns and even entire states banned the contests outright.

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  1. Michael Deitz

    The Fox Movietone newsreel collection is the most fascinating, yes magical, film imaginable. In the early 1980’s a blurb appeared in Aviation Week and Space Technology mentioning the University of South Carolina as recipient of volatile film stock requiring ammunition bunkers for storage; including aviation sound film stock capturing Gloria Swanson dedicating a Trimotor, the”City of Los Angeles” if wavering memory serves. Donations were mentioned. As new hires at an upstarting regional airline, the two of us interested in such things had no money to spare. The ardent wish was that someone would preserve an irreplaceable treasure. I never thought I would be able to see the things I have seen and wish to thank all of you associated with this collection from the bottom of my heart.

  1. “How Long Will They Last?” Endurance Dance Contests: Jazz-Age Reality TV | A Smile And A Gun

    […] Want to see what these dance contests really looked like? Watch these outtakes from 1930s news footage of the tail end of a 16 week dance contest, where contestants danced over 2,664 hours, breaking the world record by over 863 hours. […]

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