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Dance During the Great Depression: The Good and the Gruesome

As a dancer myself, I love dance history, and I particularly find the role of dance during the Great Depression fascinating. Prior to the Great Depression, dance was mostly characterized by the traditional, upbeat, and theatrical movements of the Jazz Age - even if you aren’t a dancer, I’m sure you can picture the Foxtrot or the Charleston performed by flapper girls in fringe dresses. But as modern dance evolved through the thirties, dance became a way of making societal and political commentary through movement. Modern dancers of the thirties searched for inspiration in everyday movements in gestures, aiming to reflect real life through their work. In the 30s, pivotal figures in the dance world such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Helen Tamuris, and Katherine Dunham acted as an impetus for dance to be seen as an individualistic and experimental art form and used as a means of embracing raw, emotional expression. The work done by these dancers is the inspiration for much of the choreography done in professional dance companies today.

The United States also saw a dramatic spike in dance marathons during the Great Depression. These were endurance tests in which contestants would dance for consecutive hours (some for as long as many months) to compete for prize money worth up to a year’s salary. For only a 25 cent admission fee, dance marathons provided desperate Americans with shelter, an abundance of food, an opportunity for money, and a distraction from reality. 

The contestants of these marathons were only able to sleep in 15 minute intervals once every hour. They were to remain dancing while eating, bathing, reading, and writing. They would often visibly hallucinate as a result of their exhaustion, piquing the interest of the audience, and there were even reports of fatigue-induced psychosis in which contestants would become violent. Judges would respond to the tired contestants by whipping them, blowing whistles into their ears, adding additional endurance challenges, and verbally harassing them. In the words of Richard Elliot, a dance marathon promoter in the 30s, “People came to see ‘em suffer, and to see when they were going to fall down…That was all part of it. Depression entertainment.” Entertaining the audience was the biggest priority - these marathons were often rigged to favor specific couples depending on the audience’s preference. Whether they felt superiority or pity, spectators were enthralled by the exploitative nature of these marathons. 

One couple from Minnesota, Callum Devillier and Vonnie Kuchinski, danced for five consecutive months, from December 1932 to June 1933. Dancer Homer Morehouse, after dancing for 87 hours, died on the dance floor of exhaustion. After more instances of death and even some of suicide, cities such as Seattle and Boston banned dance marathons, and they eventually lost popularity as WW2 emerged. They scarcely remain today, mostly as charity events. 

Dance served as an outlet during the Depression era. In one sense, it was used to reflect the cultural ills of society through expressive, raw, and nontraditional movement. In another sense, it was used to exploit desperate Americans.

Ella Wisdom

Grade 12

Bentonville High School

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