In The Northwest And Elsewhere, Dance Marathons Were Brutal Sport And Reality Entertainment

Jun 21, 2016

Seattle, July 30, 1928. Dozens of couples, on their feet for days. Twirling, walking, holding their sleeping partners upright, they desperately try to stay in the running, all trying to be the last couple standing. Then, in a fit of psychosis from lack of sleep, a man punches his partner in the jaw and runs out into the street. The competition continues for another 11 days.

It is Seattle’s first dance marathon, and will prove to be its last. Not long after the contest ends, Gladyz Lenz, whose partner had attacked her, attempts suicide. She’d hoped to win enough money in the marathon to reclaim her child from her ex-husband. The incident prompts a citywide ban on dance marathons. But it won’t be the only such contest in the Northwest.

With its relatively new and less populous states, the Northwest in the 1920s was the perfect place for dance marathons. Organizers sought “virgin spots:” towns that had not yet seen dance competitions, which relied on novelty to attract attention. Young states like Washington, Oregon, and Idaho had plenty.

Originating on the east coast, often as American Legion fundraisers, dance marathons asked contestants to stay on their feet for hundreds - or even thousands, of hours. Cheap, exciting, and shocking, they quickly became popular spectacles.

At first, dance marathons would last a few dozen hours, then a few hundred. When the craze arrived in Seattle in 1928, the world record was 321 hours and 30 minutes. It would soon be surpassed. By the time dance marathons were banned - state by state and city by city over the next decade - they would often last months. Contestants were given a fifteen-minute break once an hour.

Typically, the marathons worked like this: several dozen couples (married, siblings, professional dancers, even total strangers just looking to win) would all meet in a large hall rented by the contest’s organizers. There, they would begin to dance - or, more often, shuffle. Sometimes called “walkathons,” the dances’ biggest rule was generally that contestants’ knees couldn’t touch the floor.

Dancers were often motivated by the Great Depression. At a time when many could not find work, or even food and shelter, the marathons offered weeks or even months of free meals and a roof over the head of the contestants.

“It was a brutal way to get your meals, but you were getting a lot of meals,” Washington historian Paula Becker says.

And contest winners could take home a lot of cash. A typical dance marathon would pay out about $500 to the victors. That would be about $7000 today. It was a massive sum to families struggling to put food on the table.

The Depression also brought in audiences. Promoters (generally former public relations professionals or vaudevillians) would play up the couples’ stories, often invented by the emcees, to keep the audience invested in their favorite performers. With tickets only 25 cents - a little over $3 today - it was cheap, reliable entertainment.

“For a tiny amount of money, you could get a lot of emotional gratification as an audience member,” Becker says.

Many of the dancers were not locals trying their luck, but professionals who traveled with the marathons - and almost always won. There are few recorded instances of other contestants winning. It didn’t help that most of the contests were rigged: the judges were employed by the organizers, and could conveniently ignore any failures on the part of the chosen winners.

“There was always someone on the floor who was looking and watching to make sure your foot was moving. They had discretion as to whether or not they noticed someone breaking the rules,” Becker says. “There would be times that the professional couples would just say ‘it’s time for this to be over.’”

Many of these professionals were former vaudeville performers. They used their singing or comedy skills  to get citizens into the seats - and even earned a little extra cash during the marathons.

These scheduled entertainments were common, particularly in the evening, as the marathons went on. One of the most popular was the marathon wedding. A couple would agree to get married on the dance floor, in front of everyone.

“They mostly weren’t real weddings,” Becker says. “Sometimes you’d have the same couples getting married at marathons around the country.”

And, when that wasn’t enough to keep audiences interested, promoters would begin eliminating couples with sprints and other races. It was a kind of blood sport, pushing contestants to their limits.

“People would collapse and sometimes be injured,” Becker says. “To throw those kinds of endurance events at people, such as races where people would be chained together, it just was very brutal.”

It was one reason for the seedy, quasi-legal nature of the competitions.

“They were kind of flim-flam, and fly-by-night, and a lot of the people who participated in them professionally, later in life, didn’t want to admit to it,” Becker says. “Sometimes the marathoners would get run out of town because of controversy. And these dances functioned in a kind of uncontrolled netherworld of right and wrong.”

As the marathons went on into the late 1930s, injuries, deaths, and increasing controversy led to the dances being banned across the country. Seattle was one of the first cities to ban the marathons - its 1928 dance would be both its first and last. After a contestant’s partner had a breakdown, attacking her and fleeing into the street, she attempted suicide, sparking a quickly-passed ordinance.

Even without the bans, Becker doesn’t think dance marathons would have survived changing social norms.

“I would bet that if you staged a dance marathon in Spokane today, it would be shut down right away,” Becker says. “People would recognize them as abusive almost immediately.”

 Copyright 2016 Northwest Public Radio