Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad

Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad

Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad

Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad


Dance marathons were a phenomenally popular fad during the manic 1920s and depressive 1930s. What began as a craze soon developed into a money-making business which lasted 30 years. Some 20,000 contestants and show personnel participated in these events; audiences, the majority women, totalled in the millions. "A Poor Man's Nightclub," dance marathons were the dog-end of American show business, a bastard form of entertainment which borrowed from vaudeville, burlesque, night club acts and sports.


The dancing pair that sought renown,
By holding out to tire each other down

Oliver Goldsmith, "The Deserted Village"

A cornucopia of fads may have prompted Westbrook Pegler to give the twenties the apt name, "The Era of Wonderful Nonsense." In the home, there were marathon hand-holding and husband-calling contests. Vincent Toro and Louise Heath were declared the winners of a kissing marathon, having held a kiss for 96 hours, 32 minutes, 3 seconds, allowing 5 minutes every hour for a break. Endurance competitions in milk drinking and meatball eating races were staged in the kitchen.

Outside the home, there were kite flying, chair rocking and flagpole sitting endurance competitions. In this latter event, Shipwreck Kelly once sat atop a flagpole of the Paramount Hotel in New York for 13 days, 13 hours and 13 minutes in zero-degree weather and sleeting rain (Sann, 42). One man even tried a stint at uninterrupted piano playing. On a grand scale, C.C. "Cash & Carry" Phyle, a business entrepreneur, promoted a Bunion Derby, a 3,400 mile cross-country foot race from Los Angeles to New York (Sann, 47-56). In the aftermath of World War I, Americans sought quick and easy release in mass culture amusements.

Given the enormous popularity of social dancing during the tens and twenties, it was not strange that endurance dancing would capture the interest of the American public. Russell Nye gives us a vivid account of the world of ballroom dancing during these years highlighting the importance of Vernon and Irene Castle, the innovative ballroom team, in stimulating a "dance craze" during the pre-War years (Erenberg 146-175). Abel Green and Joe Laurie, Jr., in their massive compilation of American entertainment, Show Biz: From Vaude to Video, report that, "By 1927, dance halls and ballrooms were doing an amazing business from coast to coast with a family-type trade content to sit at ringside seats and in balconies to watch exhibition dancing, novelty bands and other entertainment" (230).

The dance endurance fad actually made its first appearance in America before the twenties. Green and Laurie note that it was Sid Grauman, an enterprising showman, who staged the first dance marathon contest in America, in 1910. There were two events held two weeks apart, the second contest terminating on the recommendation of physicians after 15 hours of non-stop dancing (36).

But at the turn of the century, the efforts of dance hall operators to interest . . .

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