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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There’s a great scene early in the Christmastime classic It’s a Wonderful Life, where our protagonist, George Bailey, crashes a dance at his former high school.

A great time is had by all

His future wife, Mary Hatch, encourages him to join fun and some jealous pranksters, eager to catch Mary’s eye and put ol’ stuffy George in his place, open the pool under the gym floor.

Clueless, George dances his way into the water, bringing Mary with him, as they all continue to dance and splash around. A great time is had by all.

High school kids and young adults in the 1920s and 1930s had few opportunities for this kind of fun, given that the United States and much of the world were suffering great economic hardships, the fallout from World War I and the build up to World War II while trying to keep themselves and their families fed and living in some kind of acceptable housing.

The oldest forms of structured social event

Dancing was a simple pleasure even without all the stark surroundings. In the days before any kind of entertainment technology other than a radio or record player, it was easy, mostly free and plenty of fun.

It’s one of the oldest forms of structured social event and, it’s easy to reason, everyone in a given area would know the same steps.

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The event credited as the first dance marathon happened in 1923 when a 32-year-old woman named Alma Cummings spent 27 hours dancing with a rotation of six partners at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Dance marathons

Impressed and maybe a little befuddled by what she’d accomplished, others wanted to see if they could dance as long as she had. Most dance marathons were contests, while others were fundraisers. They could last a few hours or several days, or until no one was left standing.

There were usually prizes involved, ranging from money to much-needed supplies. Usually the dancers had the accompaniment of either amplified recordings or, on occasion, a live band, and the music moved from fast to slow and back again to keep dancers on their toes – literally.