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Chelsea Alley Professor Cathy Black Dance 466 March 25, 2012 Dance Marathons: Spectacle Entertainment During

the Great Depression During their brief history through the Great Depression, dance marathons developed into productions of spectacle entertainment based on struggle, pain, and endurance. They exemplify several aspects of gladiatorial type performances and were a predecessor for todays popular entertainment. Through a study of the dance marathons and their development in the 1930s, we can trace similar ideas back through the ages and draw meaningful conclusions about our human nature and what it means for us today. On March 30, 1923, Alma Cummings began dancing. Several pairs of shoes, six partners, twenty-seven hours, and a new world record later, she finally stopped. This achievement is credited as the spark that set off the dance marathon craze in America. At first, they were only hourly affairs as one hopeful after another tried to break the previous records. As the Great Depression swept over America, however, dance marathons developed into highly involved and organized exhibitions. The old style dance marathons, where people merely danced until they dropped, were a thing of the past. As performance, marathons became a conglomeration of social dance, music, theatre, and sport. (No Good Reason 50) They became a pastime singular only to a depressed and desperate nation. Pastime, however, is perhaps too tame a word to describe a phenomenon that by the 1930s, during the Depression, had become a grueling exercise of perseverance, a performance of physical stamina and psychological fortitude that roused in audiences the spirit of the ancient gladiatorial games. While the early marathons were novel displays of

Alley 2 physical strength and prowess, in their later, more technically developed form they came to symbolize the entire ethos of a culture struggling to make sense of a world suddenly wracked by poverty, hardship, and insecurity. (Malnig 40) The marathons became Americas most widely attended and yet controversial forms of entertainment. An estimated 20,000 were employed as promoters, floor judges, trainers, and contestants. According to Carol Martin, the amount of spectators was many times that number, though no reliable estimates have been made (Dance Marathons xvi). After the rules regulating the competitions were codified, contestants were required to dance for 45-60 minutes and were allowed a rest of 10-15 minutes, some of which was required for using the restroom and other necessities. Four hours was the most amount of sleep any contestant could get. Contestants learned how to sleep standing up while their partners supported them and dragged them around the floor (No Good Reason 62). Other than those few hours, contestants were required to continue dancing and moving while eating, shaving, even writing and other everyday activities. The dancing, however, quickly turned into an exhausted shuffling of the feet. As Martin notes, within the marathon arena, the quality of dance itself was never a criterion. Physical stamina, rather than skill, was the requirement (Malnig 40). After hours and days, the show of couples shuffling around a dance floor in various states of exhaustion was not riveting enough to keep spectators on its own. A mere endurance contest was certainly not enough. The dance marathons took on theatrical roles, milking emotion from the audience and sucking them into the spectacle. The heart of the marathon was its creation of popular, fictional dramas out of contestants real lives. Melodrama thrived in the marathon (Malnig 41). Contestants had to take on the dual roles of participant and performer. Drab life dramas were transformed into heroic struggles in the telling . . . The idea was to keep fans

Alley 3 emotionally involved in the show by appealing to a variety of conscious and unconscious needs and fantasies (Calabria 76). Every marathon had its sweetheart couple, its unscrupulous villain, its former stars beaten down by the times and looking for a comeback, its average Joes, its heroes. Endurance dance promoters and contestants sought to inflame spectators and align their emotional reactions for or against individual performers . . . Sympathy in endurance shows was deliberately cultivated in devious and sophisticated ways . . . (No Good Reason 53). With the emotional pressures of the Depression, the emotional factors of the dance marathons half pretense, half real appealed to audiences. They could relate. They could triumph with contestants, or they could tear them down. They could find relief in the pleasure that watching others struggle and fall could bring. A New York Times journalist of the day as wrote: It was [historian Thomas] Macaulays conjecture that the Puritans objected to bear baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators. This is a much more tolerant age. Apparently it welcomes marathon dances despite the obvious fact that they give pain to the dancers and leaves one wondering what kind of spectator might derive pleasure from the frowsy spectacle. (qtd. in Dance Marathons 32) Dance marathons provided spectators with some form of escape from their own lives through an entertainment derived from watching struggle in pain in someone elses life. Because as staged as some of it might have been, the contestants really were struggling. In an interview, Richard Elliot declared, Now, people came to see em die. Thats an overstatement. But they came to see em suffer, and to see when they were going to fall down. They wanted to see if their favorites were going to make it. That was all part of it. It was Depression entertainment (qtd. in No Good Reason 55). While some dancers went from marathon to marathon, becoming

Alley 4 professional contestants, sometimes even invited to participate by promoters, many contestants were new every time. As Martin outlines, Each show also [had] its amateur locals who joined the contest in hopes of winning the $1,000 to $1,500 prize money, or just to get food to eat and have a roof over their heads (No Good Reason 52). It was all part of the thrill the combination of real and show, the amateurs mixed in with the professionals, with some uncertainty about which was which. But no matter how staged some elements were, or how ambiguous the line between reality and fabrication was, the dancers were still struggling. There were explosions of real pain, the onset of very real exhaustion. The hurt was real. As Martin writes, The dancers were struggling, but they were also performing. The contest was about struggle and converting it into entertainment (Dance Marathons 67). The forces behind the dance marathons capitalized on contestants pain and private moments. In addition to the display of meals and personal hygiene practices, medical treatment areas often had a glass wall or were completely open in order to let the audience watch. At some marathons, there were even cot nights where all the cots were brought out and contestants took their rests in front of the spectators. As Martin says, Despite the phoniness of some aspects of marathons, the dancers were really walking, dancing, eating, sleeping, getting injured, and receiving medical care all in full view of the audience (No Good Reason 59). All of this transparency was in order to mold the emotional commitment of the spectators. While demonstrating the extent to which contestants had been pulled away from their daily routines, these little scenes also simulated an aura of domesticity and helped create an illusion of intimacy on the part of the audience (Dance Marathons 31). It wasnt just the promoters, emcees, and organizers of dance marathons that fed these illusions. Both contestants/performers and spectators were active participants in the

Alley 5 construction of these performance events. Spectators could interject their fantasies and desires into the performance event, and performers would willingly oblige (No Good Reason 52). If a contestant could win the support (or even the malice) of the audience, they were better off. Immediately following an age of selfish extravagance and excessiveness (which itself followed the horrifying, disillusioning World War I), the Depression brought about a shift in American perspective and value. The times were changing. People were redefining themselves and their nation. Personality, the successful performance of self, replaced character as the most desirable American attribute (Dance Marathons 24). Spectators rewarded the contestants that stood out that showed personality. Many contestants gradually became professionals as they learned the ropes and developed a personal style (No Good Reason 52). These dramas, these emotional hooks, were captivating. Audiences knew that most of it was staged, but at the same time, they knew that any of it could become real at any second. The dance marathons asked spectators to see that what was really happening was theater, even while enticing them to pretend that it was not (Dance Marathons 44). For example, dance marathons often included mock weddings; however, in some cases, it was a real wedding. For Americans who avidly partook of mass and popular culture, daily life was lived between the quotation marks of performance, as if for real (Dance Marathons 24). The marathons were equal parts fantasy and reality and spectators lived it all vicariously. However, even these added emotional, dramatic elements would not have been enough to keep an audience watching in fascination for weeks on end. After days and days, with contestants dragging themselves around the floor, some battling hallucinations, others fighting to keep their partners in the contest with wrists bound together, spectators were still bound to get bored. In order to keep the show unexpected and exciting, emcees would announce elimination

Alley 6 contests. While different than the grinding foot shuffling of the couples dancing, they were even more grueling and exhausting meant to force more couples out of the contest, leaving only the strongest or most committed contestants. These elimination rounds included contests called zombie treadmills, sprint races (called grinds), horseraces, back-to-back struggles, hurdles, dynamite sprints, heel and toe races, duck waddles, and bombshells. Each elimination contest had different rules that put the contestants through their paces in unique ways . . . These tortures were the icing on the cake for spectators who really wanted to watch the weak ones fall by the wayside, as a popular advertisement slogan promised (No Good Reason 55). At this point, the contestants would be making herculean efforts to stay in the contest, while spectators looked eagerly on to the next torturous event that would slash even more participants. Their ability to continue, to stay in the race, to survive, was at times almost unbelievable. And the audience ate it up. In their struggle, the contestant [was] exalted to the position of combination gladiator and night-club entertainer (No Good Reason 54). Audiences would stay to the bitter end, desperately hoping their favorites would make it, waiting for the villainous participants to get their due, or quite possibly simply unwilling to return to their depressing and demanding realities. The marathons were fascinating, in a sordid way. Arnold Gingrich characterized them as the poor mans night club, a place where celebrity is immediate, stardom easy, and human dignity is very low (qtd. in No Good Reason 50). Many spectators were completely consumed by this entertainment. June Havoc, one of the better-known dancers produced by dance marathons, said: They [the audience] stayed for hours, days. They neglected home, children, work. Breeding, religion, culture or lack of it could not explain the avid interest of the spectators . . . They were drawn to us by the climate of cruelty in the world. Our

Alley 7 degradation was entertainment; sadism was sexy; masochism was talent. The passion they spilled over us lit up an entire city. (qtd. in No Good Reason 61) Douglas Keller quotes French Situationist Guy Debord in explaining the spectacle as the moment when the consumption has attained the total occupation of social life (qtd. in Keller). There can be no doubt that through the total involvement and commitment of both participants and spectators alike, the dance marathons achieved this level of occupation and can be defined as spectacle entertainment. In this role, dance marathons share some interesting parallels with the idea of panem et circenses a phrase with roots in ancient Rome that describes a phenomenon that has reared its head throughout all history. The Latin phrase panem et circenses literally means bread and circuses, or a spectacle that supplies food and fun. It was the idea that if the Roman government could give the populace food for their bodies and entertainment for their minds, they would be appeased. That was all they needed to remain content. Their desire for duty and justness would fall away as they were captured ever more into the world of the spectacle. While I am certainly not making the statement that the American government was employing panem et circenses to keep the nation in check, I am saying that the people themselves found their own forms of this system to get them through the years of Depression. The economic situation was already oppressing the people, so they searched for bread and circuses to fill their lives. With unemployment at such high levels, families falling apart, homelessness climbing, and absolutely nothing else to hold them, dance marathons drew the people in and embraced them. The marathons became the spectacle they did in response to the mood and shifting attitudes of the nation. The performers and spectators hunger, both real and symbolic, was a motivating force in marathons. Spectators and performers alike were seeking to satisfy physical, psychological,

Alley 8 and social hunger in a time of unparalleled social and economic turbulence in the U.S (No Good Readon 58). In ancient Rome, panem et circenses was seen most memorably in the gladiatorial games bloody, violent battles filled with struggle and pain. These blood shows became a spectator sport in ancient Rome, and the main purpose for holding such an event was to entertain the crowds. These events were popular, and Romans of all classes found something redeeming or entertaining about the shows [and they] flocked to the arenas in the thousands . . . Romans were attracted to the arena by the allure of violence, by the exotic and erotic sights, and by an appreciation of the skill and courage of some of the participants (Cowles). Removing the bloodiness but still considering struggle and pain, dance marathons fall right into this description. (However, as a related note, while the marathons werent as bloody as the Roman games, they were still responsible for deaths. It was reported that dance marathons were directly and indirectly responsible for numerous deaths, although no figures on the amount were reported (Kapell).) The dance marathons were often rigged, making the show not about who the actual winner would be, but instead about the spectacle the entertainment value. As long as there was drama, emotion, pain, and nearly inhuman strength displayed, the spectators were satisfied. In their full-fledged forms, the marathons werent about a fair chance for the contestants to win; it was about entertaining the audience hence the lack of privacy, the emotional dramas, and the elimination events. The people were attracted to the arena by the allure of struggle and pain, by the scandal and erotic sights, and by an appreciation of the skill and courage of some of the participants. In the end, the struggle was about spectacle and survival.

Alley 9 Hours passed into days, weeks, and months, indifferent to the comings and goings of spectators and the decreasing number of performers. For the spectators, the focus of marathons alternated between individual heroes, comics, and villains, and the overall experience of being part of an implacable, unstoppable event an event that continued until all but one person or one couple had been exhausted, used up, consumed. This couple alone and the audience survived. (No Good Reason 60) Although they did not start out as spectacle, panem et circenses entertainment, the dance marathons certainly stepped up to fill the role in the 1930s. The development of dance marathons from a fad feeding off the sensation-hunger of the hyperactive Twenties to panem et circenses for the bleak Depression Thirties is a fascinating progression (Annotated). It wasnt simply a coincidence or strange occurrence that the dance marathons became what they did. There is something about human nature that is drawn to the spectacle, drawn to the emotional drama, and drawn to the pain of others. It is this somewhat darker side of humanity that fertilized the marathons into becoming the full-blown spectacle entertainment that they did. And although we have made great advances in many fields in the last century, human nature and tendencies can often be found to be the same throughout the ages. Therefore, the dance marathons of the Great Depression are more than simple reflections of an ancient idea and a somewhat more fatal gladiatorial format; they are also a foreshadowing of todays world where media spectacle entertainment is seeking to dazzle us from all sides. Dance marathons have been described as a fad that combines the more reprehensible aspects of television's Survivor and American Idol in a setting of stale sweat, cigarette smoke, and crumpling bodies (Annotated). With the recent popularity of books and movies like The Hunger Games, as well as shows like The Bachelor and Fear Factor, it is enlightening to make

Alley 10 comparisons to other forms of spectacle entertainment. To sit down and watch someone else writhe in a tub as its filled with snakes in order to win money, or make out with six girls and revel in obscene amounts of drama in order to win love, or go to extreme physical lengths in order to survive seems bizarre at first glance. Yet somehow, these shows suck in millions of avid viewers, as well as committed participants. What is it in human nature that gives us delight in watching others in their basest, most desperate states? From the gladiators of Ancient Rome to todays Wipeout, it seems apparent that we really do get a thrill from watching people struggle or get hurt as long as its far enough away that we are not affected. We are not always blind to the fact that we do it but we are still drawn to the spectacle. In his psychological discourse about the dance marathons, Farrell makes an impassioned plea that his reader understand the aesthetics of the spectacle and discover what needs it fills for young men and women who hunger for romance, excitement, and release from the drudgery of meaningless, menial work (qtd. in Skerrett 130). This is at the base of it. Humans get pleasure and needs fulfilled in having vicarious experiences through others emotions, excitement, even pain. Farrell went on to observe that many spectators come scornful . . . and sit until they are fascinated by the strangeness, novelty, perversion, or sordidness of the show (qtd. in Skerrett 130). We are enthralled by empathetic experiences. Because of this, popular entertainment has long had its roots in spectacle (Kellner). Perhaps this kind of vicarious living is fulfilling because it allows viewers to feel an en escape and yet also a sense of hope. As Melissa Allen stated in her thesis, At a time when many went without nutrition and shelter, most did not go without dance . . . these entertainment forms were a means of entertainment, a source of hope, and a way to escape from the bleak reality of their everyday lives (Allen 43).

Alley 11 This is the reason that we as humans always turn to such spectacle entertainment. We connect and decide to care. What we must be careful of is the tendency to turn to brutality to finish the spectacle. When the pleasure comes at the expense of someone elses pain, the issues that must be brought up are moral ones. This is the danger in our society today. There are those of us being completely consumed by emotional drama and human pain as entertainment at the expense of real life. After all, the concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of separation and passivity, for in submissively consuming spectacles, one is estranged from actively producing one's life (Kellner). The dance marathons of the Great Depression had a brief history. They died off quickly once World War II breathed a spark of life back into the nation. With real life real opportunities, real duties, real cares, real emotions calling, nobody had time for such useless entertainment. No longer were people passive and submissive with no direction or aim. The country had something to work for again. It pulled them back to life. As terrible as World War II was, its event may have saved a struggling, aimless United States of America. A few promoters tried to drag the dance marathons out, but after the start of the Second World War, they were never as successful or profitable again. The people had a reason to face their realities again. Today, however, with a world of technology, comfort, and ease, real life is not as physically demanding as it used to be. We have time to sit back, to be entertained, and to be totally caught up. The spectacle can be impressive. It can be fun and exciting. But can we as humans allow ourselves to enjoy spectacle entertainment without being caught up in violence and ruthlessness? We must, or our downfall will be as great as that of Rome. While we must recognize what base tendencies we may have, we must rise above and find things to direct our realities with in order to find meaning and fulfillment. We need to learn the lessons that the

Alley 12 dance marathons and spectacle entertainment have to teach us about who we are and what we want to be. It will require a resistance to desensitization. It will require us to learn from our past and let those lessons direct our future.

Alley 13 Works Cited

Allen, Melissa Spencer. The Roles of Popular Entertainment Dance During the Great Depression. Brigham Young University. 2000. Print

"An Annotated Bibliography of Commedia, Music Hall, Panto, Vaudeville, and Ever So Much More." Obscure Stages. 17 Oct. 2006. Web. 28 Mar. 2012. <>.

Calabria, Frank M. Dance of the Sleepwalkers: the dance marathon fad. Bowling Green

State University Press. 1993. Print.

Cowles, Lauren E. "The Spectacle of Bloodshed in Roman Society." Constructing the Past 10th ser. 12.1 (2011). Print.

Kapell, Dave. "Marathon Dancing." Dave's Blog. MagPo Blogs, 12 Dec. 2006. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <>.

Kellner, Douglas. "Media Spectacle." Cultural Studies as Diagnostic Critique. UCLA. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <>. Malnig, Julie. Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture in the 1920s and 1930s.

Vol. 27. Pgs. 40-43. Dance Research Journal. 1995. Print. Martin, Carol. Dance Marathons: For No Good Reason. The Drama Review. Vol 31.

Pg. 48-63. 1987. Print.

Alley 14 Martin, Carol. Dance Marathons Performing American Culture In the 1920s and 1930s.

University Press of Mississippi. 1994. Print.

Skerrett, Ellen. "James T. Farrell's "The Dance Marathons"" MELUS 18.1 (1993): 127-31. Print.