Killer Moves: The Deadly Dance Marathons of the Great Depression


Too much of a good thing can be bad for you, and apparently that includes a seemingly benign activity like dancing. During the 1920s, the revival of the Olympic Games sparked massive interest in impressive feats of strength and endurance, which led to the rise in popularity of dance contests that lasted for extended periods of time. In 1923, the dance marathon craze saw world records for dancing without stopping being broken virtually on a daily basis. However, things got out of hand when the prosperous 1920s faded into the Great Depression of the 1930s. The harmless dance contest transformed into twisted spectacles where people literally died of exhaustion on the dance floor for the chance to win much-needed cash prizes. Contestants sometimes danced for days, sometimes weeks on end for a chance to win the equivalent of a year’s salary. Dance marathons were very strict in their rules. Contestants had to remain in motion to be counted as dancers and were given 15 minutes of rest per hour during which contestants could use the bathroom or get a much-needed foot massage from volunteer nurses. Food and water were usually consumed while dancing, and competitors were closely monitored. One of the most important rules of a dance marathon was that a competitor’s knees could not touch the ground, as that resulted in disqualification. Partners took turns sleeping for a few minutes, and they were even allowed to change partners if the original one could not continue. Smelling salts and hard slaps were used to wake up tired participants, but ice baths were also used in extreme cases. Unfortunately, these methods did nothing to prevent the dangerous side effects of exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Psychosis sometimes set in after tens or hundreds of hours of continuous dancing, with some dancers become violent. As more people discovered the tragic side of dance marathons, cities around the United States began banning them. Competitions had grown so extreme that people began seeing them for the gruesome spectacles they had become.