The Great Depression Dance Marathons: Jiving Like Your Life Depended on It

In an era when food was a luxury for most Americans, dance marathons could mean the difference between a decent meal or going to bed hungry.
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Source: Library of Congress

In 1923, Americans found themselves an entertaining way to spend their evenings: taking part in a dance contest. Jump ahead to 1930 during the throes of the Great Depression with money, food and shelter all in high demand, and one couple having survived 2,831 hours on the dance floor to bring home a cash prize of $2,650 (about $37,000 today).

What started as harmless fun was eventually twisted into a morbid display of couples literally dancing for their lives, since dance marathons could carry on for months at a time and participants were at least guaranteed a roof over their head and a square meal or two daily as long as they were still in the running.

The argument can be made the roots of reality television, at least the appeal that seems to make it a success, began here.

Dance marathons started off as stylish affairs, a perfect complement to the Roaring ‘20s and the anything goes mentality of the time.