Dance marathons (or marathon dances) are events in which people dance or walk to music for an extended period of time. They started as dance contests in the 1920s and developed into entertainment events during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Before the development of "reality shows", dance marathons blurred the line between theatre and reality. Also known as endurance contests, dance marathons attracted people to compete as a way to achieve fame or win monetary prizes. The 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, based on the 1935 novel of the same title written by Horace McCoy, a bouncer at several such marathons, popularized the idea and prompted students at Northwestern University, Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University, Ohio State University, the University of Florida, the University of Kentucky, the University of Iowa, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to create charity dance marathons. Marathons could last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks.
Dance marathons became popular in the United States during the Great Depression. The popularity of dance marathons began in 1923 when a woman named Alma Cummings danced continuously for 27 hours with six different partners. After Cummings established her record, dance marathons became common in the United States. Initially, participants competed in order to break Cummings's record, but later on people began to compete to win prizes, which could range from money to publicity.
Dance marathons were a huge hit during the Great Depression as they provided contestants and spectators food, shelter and the opportunity to earn cash prizes, at a time when many people needed a meal and free entertainment. The dances were popular at this time because these events supplied basic human needs to both the contestants and audience.
The depression era marathons faded in the public's enthusiasm in the late 1930s due to increased municipal ordinances and the decreased number of towns where the seamier side of the promotions were unknown. The improving economic conditions and the American entry into World War II also contributed to their demise.
Rules vary widely, but one common rule of the marathon stated that the participants could not fall asleep, although some marathons would allow one part of the team to sleep as long as their teammates continued dancing. It was important for the team to keep moving because if they stopped, they would be disqualified from the contest. Contestants were only allowed to leave the dance floor for hygienic or medical purposes, to change clothing, or for other similar circumstances. A mixture of other elements were incorporated in the marathons including elimination sprints, raffles, mud wrestling and fake weddings of competitors. Oftentimes, the type of music played at a dance marathon changed throughout the duration of it. It consisted of a mix of slow and upbeat music to give the contestants breaks and also keep them going and energized. Spectators were allowed to come in and watch the marathon and the contestants competing. Often, viewers were able to pay 25 cents to watch the marathon for as long as they wished.
Although many people supported marathons because they were sources of entertainment, there were outside groups that opposed the marathons. Some external groups did not like what the marathons were doing to participants. Movie theater owners, church groups, and women's groups were among those that opposed the marathons. Movie theatre owners were unhappy because people were paying to watch the marathons instead of attending films. Churches were unhappy with the way that the contestants danced with each other as it was not socially acceptable during the time period. Women's groups were upset because they thought it was unethical to charge spectators to watch dancers humiliate themselves.
In 1928, Seattle passed an ordinance prohibiting dance marathons within city limits when a woman attempted suicide after competing in a 19-day marathon and receiving 5th place. Other states followed Seattle's precedent shortly after. Although marathons were extremely popular, they were also dangerous. During a marathon in the 1920s, a man named Homer Morehouse was the first contestant to dance in the marathon, but after dancing for 87 hours, he collapsed from exhaustion and died on the dance floor.
Charity dance marathons
Today, over 250 colleges and high schools nationwide participate in dance marathons of some sort to raise money for children's hospitals. Some raise money under the Children's Miracle Network and with their help, while others are entirely student-run and operate to benefit partnered charities. Each year, students organize and host different types of dance marathon events in which participants stand on their feet for 12–46 hours straight.
Some US student-run dance marathons include:
Penn State Dance Marathon (THON)
The Penn State Dance Marathon, commonly referred to as THON, is a 46 hour dance marathon which takes place every February at Pennsylvania State University to raise money to combat children's cancer. THON was started in 1973 by the university's Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils and in its first year raised more than $2,000. Today, it is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world which has raised over $157 million since 1977. In 2011, THON raised $9,563,016.09, in 2013, $12,374,034.46 and in 2014, $13,343,517.33. In 2020 THON raised $11,696,942.38. The money raised is donated to the Four Diamonds Fund, a charity devoted to defeating pediatric cancer through research and treats patients at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center Children's Hospital.
Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM)
Founded in 1975, Northwestern University Dance Marathon, commonly referred to as NUDM, is one of the nation's largest student-run philanthropies. The event unites more than 1,500 students, faculty, and staff to participate in the 30-hour dance-a-thon at the end of the winter quarter in early March. Unlike other Dance Marathons, NUDM changes which charity it primarily supports from year to year. The primary beneficiary is chosen each May, and will receive 90% of all funds raised throughout the year. The other 10% is donated to the Evanston Community Foundation (ECF), which then uses this gift to allocate grants to local Evanston charities. NUDM 2020 will be the 23rd year where ECF has been the secondary beneficiary. With 1,000 dancers and over 500 committee members who work throughout the year to help organize the event and raise awareness, NUDM is a Northwestern tradition. In 2014, NUDM raised its highest total to date, $1,385,273 to benefit Team Joseph. In 45 years, NUDM raised more than $20 million for over 30 charities.
Indiana University Dance Marathon (IUDM)
The Indiana University Dance Marathon, commonly known as IU Dance Marathon or IUDM, is a 36-hour Dance Marathon that takes place every November at Indiana University with the purpose of raising both funding and awareness for pediatric care. In 1991, student Jill Stewart started IU Dance Marathon in honor of her friend, Ryan White, who died from AIDS the year before. Since then, IUDM has raised over $32 million for Riley Hospital for Children, including $4,203,326.23 during the 2017 marathon year. IUDM currently supports the Wells Center for Pediatric Research and Riley Hospital for Children.
University of Iowa Dance Marathon (UIDM)
The University of Iowa Dance Marathon was founded in 1994 and provides financial and emotional support to pediatric oncology and bone marrow transplant patients treated at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital. Over the past 24 years, the University's largest student organization has raised $24,548,226.30 for the children's hospital. In 2018, UIDM raised a total of $3,011,015.24, making it the second Miracle Network Dance Marathon in the country to raise over three million dollars. After a ten-year, $5 million leadership gift to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital's building campaign, the 11th floor was named the UI Dance Marathon Pediatric Cancer Center. Since then, the student-run group has donated over $2.2 million to create the UI Dance Marathon Pediatric Oncology Targeted Therapy Program and $2 million to establish the first student-funded chair position at the University of Iowa, the UI Dance Marathon Chair in Pediatric Oncology, Clinical and Translational Research.
Florida State University Dance Marathon (FSUDM)
With more than one beneficiary, FSU's dance marathon benefits children's causes and has raised more than $6 million since 1996. The 2018 campaign raised a total of $2,152,382 for Children's Miracle Network, surpassing the previous year's record by $322,214.
- Dancing mania
- Roller derby, which originated as a 3000-mile roller skating race, inspired by a series of walkathons promoted by Leo Seltzer.
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