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Dance marathons are events in which people dance or walk to music for an extended period of time. Dance marathons, endurance movement contests, and derbies can be traced back to London in 1364. 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 and the University of Florida 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 not only because these events supplied basic human needs to both the contestants and audience, but are also popular due to the sadistic pleasure, or power the audience felt through watching the contestants compete in the grueling event.
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. 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.
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