Between flagpole sitting and goldfish swallowing, the 1920s and 1930s had their fair share of odd pastimes. Another weird fad of the era, even more extreme in its own way, was marathon dancing. Those were endurance events, in which dancing couples competed with each other, with prizes going to whichever dancing duo had the legs to outlast the rest.
This odd pastime started in 1923, when a woman named Alma Cummings danced for 27 consecutive hours at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, outlasting six partners. That inspired others, and dance marathon contests quickly spread across the US, as competitors tried to break Cummings’ record. The competitions became spectator events, publicized in the press and hyped up by promoters and sponsors.
The happy go lucky Roaring Twenties ended with the stock market crash of 1929, and in the ensuing Great Depression, dance marathons took on a sadder and grimmer tone. What had once been competitions driven by a desire to break records, now took on a more depressing cast with dancers desperate to win prize money. Even if they lost, they would at least spend a few days out of the elements, with free meals and a roof over their heads.
Most competitors during the Great Depression were no longer in it for the fun of it, so they did not even bother with dancing. Their goal was the prize money, or at least spending as much time as possible indoors and fed by the event’s sponsors, so they focused on expending as little energy as possible while sticking to the letter of the rules. Generally, the rules held that the dancers could not fall asleep and remain stationary, but must keep moving. Some competitions however allowed one partner to sleep, so long as the other was awake and kept the duo moving.
Thus, dance partners slowly shuffled around the dance floor, while adhering to the rules about maintaining a hold upon each other, without their knees touching the floor. In some competitions, contestants got 15 minutes’ rest each hour, during which they rushed to sleep on cots. Other competitions had no hourly breaks, and allowed dancers to leave the floor only for bathroom breaks, medical purposes, or to change clothes. Once back on the dance floor, they took turns supporting each other’s weight to keep their partner upright, as he or she got some extra rest and shuteye while being propped and shuffled around.
The popularity of dance marathons gradually ebbed in the 1930s, as they grew increasingly controversial and came under increased criticism. Aside from the morality of exploiting destitute dancers to entertain paying spectators, there were concerns about the exhibition of female bodies and potential sexual exploitation. By the end of WWII, dance marathons had largely vanished.