Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s

Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s

Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s

Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture of the 1920s and 1930s

Excerpt

When on September 24, 1993, President Bill Clinton appeared on television to explain his national health plan, he promised to answer in detail every single question put to him by the studio audience assembled to simulate a town meeting. Maureen Dowd, on special assignment for the New York Times, noted that the president's promise to tell all "alarmed his staff members, who envisioned the policy equivalent of the dance-marathon movie They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Why is the seemingly endless, round-the-clock entertainment of the 1920s and 1930s still alive enough in the public imagination to characterize the behavior of someone in 1993? Dowd did not have to explain to her readers what a dance marathon was; she knew they would understand exactly what the president's staff feared.

Dance marathons still have a hold on the imagination of the American public not only because of the notoriety they attracted during the Great Depression, but also because they seem to epitomize the "American dream" in one of its crazier and more contradictory manifestations. Marathons signaled grit and hope, determination and foolishness, flimflam and patriotic bunting, athleticism and a wild mix of musical numbers, good clean fun and off-color jokes, nice "boys and girls" and prostitution, tireless endurance and utter exhaustion. Few Americans in 1993 can recall these events directly. Most people know of them through a popular 1969 movie starring Jane Fonda, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The film was based on a 1935 novel of the same name written by Horace McCoy, who worked as a bouncer at several marathons in California. The Fonda film acquainted a whole new generation of Americans with dance marathons--or at least with Hollywood's interpretation of McCoy's version of a fictional dance marathon.

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