572 hours and thirty-one minutes: almost twenty-four whole days.
That’s how long “Chicago’s first all-Negro endurance dance contest” lasted.1 Starting July 1st, 1928 at the 8th Regiment Armory in the heart of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and ending on July 25th at the Savoy Ballroom at 45th and South Parkway, a lively group of ninety-three couples were whittled down to just one: Louis and Alice LaSalle, a young married couple, who managed to keep moving for almost 24 days straight.
They won a grand prize of $2,500 for their trouble–and a lot of trouble it was, too. Mrs. LaSalle lost 28 pounds by the end of the competition while “displaying Spartan bravery” as she kept dancing despite muscular spasms in her legs and other “painful afflictions of the limbs.”2 She managed to keep moving even when the dance promoters moved the contest to another location—on a truck! On July 17th, near the 400th hour, promoters laid a runway from the dance floor to a truck, led the dancers up to the truck bed, and had them “teeter around” while en route to the lavish Savoy Ballroom at 45th Street and South Parkway.3 By that point, only four couples were left, including crowd favorite 19-year-old athlete Henrietta Hearnes, who’d already won fifteen medals in other city-wide dance competitions.4 While she didn’t beat the LaSalles, she managed to waltz off with third place and $230 in prize money.5
Other contestants weren’t so lucky. Sixteen-year-old Maurine Clay broke the “monotonous shuffling” when she “ran shrieking from the floor in hysterics” on July 7th to the amusement of the crowd.6 By July 14th, many couples had to be separated for quarreling with their partners as they “battled through heat, exhaustion, and tremendous physical and mental strain” to try and stay in the game, though they managed to beat the world record at 8:15 AM by 260 hours.7 The contest continued for eleven more days, however, until the LaSalles finally won. Ultimately, only those “whose nerves were strong [and could] stand the grind” came out on top.8
Mental, emotional and physical strain was typical of endurance dance contests, however. Known as endurance dances, marathon dances, derby dances, “bunion derbies” or “corn and callus carnivals,” the popular Jazz Age craze began in 1923 when 32-year-old Englishwoman Alma Cummings “danced non-stop for 27 hours, wearing out six different partners” and “breaking the previous record set in Britain and gaining brief national acclaim for her feat.” Spurred on by dreams of fame and glory, other started holding endurance contests to see if they could beat her record. Pretty soon local dance studios and promoters got in on the deal and started holding advertised contests with cash prizes, live music, food vendors, and other forms of entertainment.
The contest rules were simple: participants danced, walked, shuffled, or otherwise kept moving for as long as they could, until only one couple was left standing. As Charles Panati noted in his 1991 book on American fads, “style meant nothing; endurance was paramount.”9 During 1923, the “dancing” was continuous until Homer Moorehouse of North Tonawanda, New York, dropped dead after 87 hours of constant movement.10 After that, fifteen minute rest periods were given every hour, allowing dancers to sleep on cots, change clothes, get massages, receive medical care from on-site nurses and doctors, eat, get new shoes, or otherwise take a break. Many dancers trained themselves to “drop instantly into deep sleep” the second their bodies touched the cots. When the rest time was up, an air horn sounded. Those who didn’t immediately awake were revived with smelling salts, slaps, and ice water baths. Food was also used to stay awake: contestants were fed simple food, like coffee, orange juice, carrots, celery, and oatmeal twelve times a day, all while still moving around.
Even with breaks and food, though, the contests quickly became grueling, desperate affairs. Contestants resorted to almost anything to stay awake and moving. It was common to see couples hit, pinch, scratch, punch, and otherwise assault one another; fights, however, were grounds for instant disqualification. Interestingly, it often fell to the “weaker sex” to urge on their partner; women often “outlast[ed] the men ten to one” and it fell to them to beg, plead, and fight to “keep [their] man going.”11 By the sixth or seventh day, spectators often noticed behavioral changes: “women would grow to hate their partners and scream and scratch at them,” fights would break out, or participants would simply collapse from the physical strain.12
Such reactions weren’t all that surprising, however, considering the contestants were all extremely sleep deprived. As Chicago Tribune reporter Westbrook Pegler noted, fifteen minutes was really “only enough to suggest the sweet relief of rest and accentuate the misery of rising again to go on and on.”13 As a result of this lack of sleep, sometimes contestants began to hallucinate “fearful” things and “fle[d] the floor, pursued by imaginary villains.”14 Others went “squirrelly” and became hysterical, started holding conversations with imaginary people, stared vacantly into space or otherwise went nuts, giving viewers a “queasy thrill.” Sometimes a dancer even fell asleep on their feet, and their partner would be forced to carry them. Interestingly, the women did most of the carrying.
Because of health concerns, cities all over America tried to shut the dances down, but “to little avail.”15 Chicago was no exception. In 1923, at the beginning of the dance craze, Chief of Police Morgan Collins and other city officials attempted to ban endurance dancing, but to no avail. Collins decried the activity as a “a form of suicide” and a dangerous fad.16 Many doctors agreed with him. Not only did contestants occasionally die on the dance floor, but lack of sleep and constant movement could, according to one Washington doctor, lead to kidney and heart damage in the nonathletic, akin to attempting rigorous “cross-country marathons, six day bicycle races, and long distance walking events” without training beforehand.17 Other physical ailments, such as “shin splints, bunions, blisters and fallen arches,” also contributed to the overall strain on the dancers. And of course there was no telling what your partner might do to you just to keep you moving, depending how desperate or determined they were. Here’s what Jack Ritoff did to his sleepy partner, Theresa Zito, at a 1930 dance contest in Chicago:
Jack Ritoff, 24 year old Joliet boy, did all he could do to keep his partner, Theresa Zito, awake and moving. After one rest period Jack took charge of the young woman and with almost paternal firmness piloted her over to a basin of ice water, where he doused her hands and face, then shook her awake and started her going again. Theresa was intent on winding her arms around his neck and simply hanging on, but Jack managed to repulse her and keep her navigating on her own power, while the crowd roared.18
Such theatrics was pure catnip to the teeming crowds that came to see the show. For 25 cents, spectators could come and watch the dancers for however long they wanted, at all hours of the day or night. And come they did: a June 1928 endurance dance contest saw over $50,000 in box receipts after only seven days, with “constant crowds” of around 10,000 people attending every day.19 In fact, during their time, such marathons were “among America’s most widely attended and controversial forms of live entertainment,” employing over 20,000 people as promoters, entertainers, judges, trainers, nurses, and so on.
While it might seem strange today to think of people paying to watch a “dance” contest that rarely involved actual dancing (remember, the only real rule was that the contestants keep moving), there were actually a variety of fairly compelling—if not exactly savory—reasons that people turned out in droves for these competitions.
For one, many people found the level of human suffering displayed in them oddly compelling. Westbrook Pegler, a Chicago Tribune reporter, couldn’t understand why “at 3 o’clock in the morning, there are 2,000 people more or less loosely gathered around the dance floor, watching,” at another Chicago endurance dance he attended.20 Yet as he stood there he found himself strangely drawn to the “fascinating misery of the girls” who shuffled around half-asleep.21 He described watching “the thickest girl on the floor” whose knees “knocked and chafed at every stride in the wretched trudge” and another thin, sallow girl who “drifted vaguely, slowly around the floor, and when she slumped too weakly her partner spanked her sharply and slapped her face with the tips of his fingers…he shook her arm. She seemed to gather her whole faint strength at that, shuddered, and became awake again.”22 Watching dancers attempt to perform daily tasks while moving around–such as “shaving with a special mirror hung around the female partner’s neck, writing letters on a special folding desk hung around one’s own neck, reading the newspaper, [or] knitting“—also amused and fascinated the crowd. Spectators at the 1928 Bronzeville dance were no exception: they sat “through the hours fascinated” and returned regularly day and night to see how things had progressed.23
Why was all this so fascinating to viewers? Well, aside from the physical dramatics, there was also a fair amount of emotional investment on the spectator’s part. Besides coming to cheer on family or friends in the contest, many spectators formed bonds with their favorite couples, becoming “invested in the emotional and often sentimental stories the emcee wove about the contestants: the sweetheart couples, the local favorites, the married couples who needed prize money to put food on their children’s plates.” Such stories were spiced up considerably when those same contestants cracked under the pressure and blew up at one another; many a couple was “no longer on speaking terms” by the end of a contest, even if they won.24 This didn’t stop audience members—75% of which were women—from hoping that romance would win out in the end, however. One winning couple was actually hounded by reporters about their supposed “engagement,” which they hotly denied, but even the reporters refused to let the idea die: “for neither would confirm the reputed romance, though the attitude of both seemed to speak louder than words…the next few days may settle the subject definitely, for the champions are to have several days in which to recuperate at an estate at Lake Geneva.”25
Another big emotional draw were the feelings of superiority and pity such dances evoked. At any time, day or night, people could come watch someone more miserable than they were drag themselves around the dance floor and feel better about their own lives. During the hard times of the Great Depression, this was a huge incentive to come watch. The fact that it was 24-hour entertainment, complete with food vendors and a roof, didn’t hurt either. Besides watching the “pallid” girls, Tribune reporter Pegler also noted the “fascinating meanness of the place” and the crowd who’d gathered at 3 AM, which included a nine-year-old girl who “came out of the crowd like a sprite out of a sewer and joined the dancers,” a quartet of customers who “amused themselves briefly, fencing with ginger ale bottles for weapons,” and an angry taxi driver who’d been “played for a sucker” by some passenger who’d skipped out on their fare.26
Unlike other forms of theater, dance marathons also offered viewers lots of direct audience participation. Ultimately, it became a form of participatory theater. Not only was the crowd able to chat directly with their favorite dancers, but they could cheer for them, bet on them, or even “spray” them with gifts of “clothing, jewelry and money” in an attempt to spur them on.27 Contestants could also elicit these sprays by entertaining the crowd directly. That way, even if they ultimately lost, they could still make some dough off the crowd—yet another big draw when the Depression hit.
Many of the dramatics that spectators loved were staged, however, in order to draw in more customers. Collapses in particular were often faked. One nurse at a local 1931 Chicago dance contest admitted that while she’d seen many collapses on the dance floor, they were all “fakes…they try to put on a show to make it more interesting…we tell them to fake so the marathon would be more interesting for the public. We carry them off to their quarters [after]. They laugh and carry on and someone sometimes has to come tell them to keep quiet.”28 Newspapers would report them all the same, though, and more people would turn out to see how dangerous things got. Physical drama spiced things up, kept visitors entertained, and kept them coming back for more.
Contests were staged in other ways as well. As the fad wore on, professional marathoners paid by event promoters—known as horses “since they could last the distance“—were put into the mix and often rigged to win over the other contestants. These professionals, many of whom were unemployed vaudeville actors, were fully “in” on the “performative nature of the contests” and knew how to play to a crowd, staging relationships, dramatics, or bits of entertainment as the situation warranted. Ultimately, though, the audience didn’t seem to care if everything was fixed. As Renee Camus notes in her online essay on dance marathons, “the contests were fixed, but both sides bought into the simulated reality of it and participated heartily, provoking each other and egging each other on. The newest episodic entertainment, spectators would return day after day to follow their heroes and see more drama unfold.”
All of this—the staged dramatics, the emotional meltdowns, the mixed sense of pity and superiority given to viewers—makes dance marathons eerily similar to one of today’s forms of popular entertainment: reality TV. In fact, according to Wikipedia, dance marathons were one of the first form of entertainment to deliberately blur the line between reality and theater. The comparison is also fairly apt for the participants themselves. Like reality TV stars, many enjoyed brief fame and fortune as contest winners, with many being offered vaudeville contracts, getting showered with gifts by spectators and local merchants, and getting their names and photo in the papers. The LaSalles of the 1928 Bronzeville contest not only received the $2,500 in prize money, but “talk of stage contracts,” a $500 Brunswick panatrope, an easy chair, hats, cash for groceries, gowns and stockings for the women, new shoes, and white silk shirts for the men—all of which were provided free of charge by local companies.29 Besides vaudeville contracts, winners sometimes went on to become professional marathoners, going from dance to dance and building up a following to the point where they could sign 10 cent autographs for fans with phrases like “dancingly yours.”
Mostly, though, endurance dance marathons were a young people’s game, and the fame and interest were just as transitory. Most contestants in the 1920s were either teenagers or in their early to mid-twenties out for a lark. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as their youth often protected them from permanent physical damage. After the 1928 Bronzeville contest ended, Dr. Walter Hamburger, a cardiologist, was called in to examine the participants. He was amazed to find that “with the exception of a little slowness of the heart and a slightly lowered blood pressure they are in good condition…their youth had carried them through.”30 Dr. Hamburger found, on a whole, that the contest was a “remarkable display of strength, courage, and stamina.”31
The concept of endurance dance marathons took on a whole new meaning, however, when the Great Depression hit. Contests during the 1920s were dominated by youths looking to be part of the “in” crowd; they did it for the sake of “faddishness,” plus the “brief celebrity status…and…sex appeal” that participating conferred.32 While I won’t go into all the details (this HistoryLink article I’ve been excessively quoting does a good job), the contests took a darker, more desperate turn during the 1930s. Not only did marathons get much longer—often by taking away rest periods entirely—but they got much more vicious, especially once promoters realized how much money could be made off of other people’s misery. Not only did they stretch the dances out for months at a time, but they often forced dancers to move faster and harder for the amusement of the crowd in the hope they’d drop, would chain couples together to make sure they didn’t drift apart, and sometimes even beat them with rulers when they started to flag (seriously). This was also the era of rigged dances, which made the hundreds of desperate unemployed people who joined the contests that much sadder. After all, if you were out of work, signing up didn’t seem so bad: you got free food, shelter, and a place to sleep, however briefly, for as long as you could last…except it was usually the professional “horses” who won in the end. Even so, the coins and bills that spectators sometimes threw acted as incentive for most to sign up, no matter what it did to them. Even with the Depression on, spectators still showed up in droves, since the 24/7 entertainment whiled away the long hopeless hours while boosting feelings of superiority and pity. Depression era dance marathons became microcosms of American life in all its depressing, hideous glory as dancers stumbled on, nearly dying at times, hoping and praying to get their hands on a piece of the American Dream while the world crumbled around them. All in all, no matter what era, as Charles Panati noted in his book Panati’s Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias (1991), “the dance marathon did not display humanity at its best.”33
Today, these endurance competitions live on, in a less extreme form, on college campuses across the country. Locally speaking, Northwestern University is well known for its annual Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM). Not only is it one of the nation’s “largest entirely student-run philanthropies,” it regularly raises over a million dollars for charity each year. Last year in 2015 it “raised $1,130,979 for Starlight Children’s Foundation, a global organization that supports critically and chronically ill children and their families,” and many other colleges raise similar amounts. Unlike earlier competitions, these are fun events that raise money for a good cause, rather than work dancers to the bone for the crowd’s amusement (though NUDM still seems fairly grueling, lasting 30 hours with breaks every 3 hours, but you’re still not expected to dance until you pass out).
Ultimately, then, it seems dance marathons have returned to where they began: as a silly yet dangerous amusement for the young.
Want to see what these dance contests really looked like? Watch these outtakes from 1930s news footage of the tail end of a 16 week dance contest, where contestants danced over 2,664 hours, breaking the world record by over 863 hours.
Or you could check out this YouTube video, which features pictures, footage, and an explanation of the event itself:
Interested in a more dramatic retelling? Try watching the 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Based on a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, it follows the desperate contestants of a 1930s endurance dance as they try to win the big cash prize. The title comes from slang for professional marathons that promoters added as ringers to contests, who were known as “horses”—and more or less treated as such. Check out the 1969 trailer here on YouTube.
Did you enjoy this post? Then check out the previous tour post on jazz in New York during the 1920s at author Bill Gutman’s murder mystery blog for his Mike Fargo detective series—or hop ahead to tomorrow’s post at fantasy author Sara Snider’s blog. Links to other posts in this tour can be found here.
1. “COLORED DANCE MARATHON ON WITH 93 COUPLES.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), July 1, 1928.←
2. Evangeline, Roberts. “MARATHONERS SMASH RECORD FOR ENDURANCE: Contest Ends After 572 Hours Battle THEY BROKE THE WORLD’S ENDURANCE RECORD.” The Chicago Defender, July 29th, 1928. p 2.←
3. “Marathon Dance Moves in Truck; Near 400th Hr.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), July 17, 1928.←
4. Roberts, Evangeline. “DANCERS STILL GOING AFTER TWELVE DAYS.” The Chicago Defender, July 14th, 1928.←
5. Evangeline, Roberts. “MARATHONERS SMASH RECORD FOR ENDURANCE: Contest Ends After 572 Hours Battle THEY BROKE THE WORLD’S ENDURANCE RECORD.” The Chicago Defender, July 29th, 1928. p 2.←
6. Roberts, Evangeline. “DANCERS STILL GOING IN DIZZY DERBY: Chicago Event May Shatter Records Dance Marathon Craze Hits Chicago.” The Chicago Defender, July 7th, 1928. p 3.←
7. Roberts, Evangeline. “DANCERS STILL GOING AFTER TWELVE DAYS.”←
9. Panati, Charles. 1991. Panati’s parade of fads, follies, and manias: the origins of our most cherished obsessions. New York, NY: HarperPerennial. 123.←
10. Skolnik, Peter L. 1972. Fads: America’s crazes, fevers, and fancies from the 1890’s to the 1970’s. 41.←
11. Roberts, Evangeline. “DANCERS STILL GOING AFTER TWELVE DAYS.”←
12. Panati, 124.←
13. Pegler, Westbrook. “NOBODY’S BUSINESS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), June 10, 1928.←
14. Panati, 124.←
15. Panati, 123.←
16. “MARATHON DANCE WORK, PLAY, OR FORM OF SUICIDE? CONTEST HERE HINGES ON CITY LAW EDICT.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), April 22nd, 1923. p 7.←
17. “DANCES CALLED MARATHONS OF DEATH, DISEASE.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), April 23rd, 1923. p 10.←
18. McLaughlin, Kathleen. “IT TAKES MONTHS TO GAIN FAME IN DANCE MARATHON: Time and Foot Contest Runs on Like Brook.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), August 3rd, 1930. p 7.←
19. McLaughlin, Kathleen. “CHICAGO CROWDS ARENA AS DANCE GOES WEARILY ON: Girl Collapses, Leaving 6 Toddling Couples.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), June 10th, 1928. p 5.←
20. Pegler, Westbrook. “NOBODY’S BUSINESS.”←
24. Roberts, Evangeline. “DANCERS STILL GOING AFTER TWELVE DAYS.”←
25. Panatis, 124.←
26. McLaughlin, Kathleen. “DANCE WINNERS BOTH DENY THEY ARE TO MARRY.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), June 14, 1928.←
27. Pegler, Westbrook. “NOBODY’S BUSINESS.”←
28. Skolnik, 41.←
29. “REVEAL FAKED COLLAPSES IN DANCE CONTEST: Nurse Tells How Show ‘Is Made More Interesting.’” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), March 14th, 1931. p 5.←
30. Evangeline, Roberts. “MARATHONERS SMASH RECORD FOR ENDURANCE: Contest Ends After 572 Hours Battle THEY BROKE THE WORLD’S ENDURANCE RECORD.”←
33. Panati, 124.←