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1923 Seventy-five Years Ago

February 2024
2min read

Can’t Stop Dancin’

On April 1 Americans awoke to find their country in the thrall of a brand-new sport: marathon dancing. The fad had begun in England in early March with an effort of nine and a half hours—a virtual sprint. A pair of doughty Scots immediately did fourteen, and within two weeks French dancers had broken the twenty-four- hour barrier. At this point, with events having clearly surpassed the bounds of sanity, it was time for the Americans to step in.

Alma Cummings of New York City started things off on March 30 and 31, dancing with a series of partners for twenty-seven hours straight (with occasional short breaks). On April 6 a pair of fellow New Yorkers logged forty. The dauntless Miss Cummings, a dance instructor, hit the floor again the next day and went fifty hours, alternating the fox trot, the one-step, and the waltz. This time she wisely discarded the high-heeled French shoes of her first attempt for flat boudoir slippers.

Soon the entire country got into the act. Between April 12 and 19, terpsichoreans in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Houston broke the record no fewer than seven times. This total does not include the achievement of Homer Morehouse of North Tonawanda, New York, who danced for what would have been a record eighty-seven hours but dropped dead at the end, invalidating his performance.

Government officials quickly moved to suppress the craze. (Miss Cummings suggested holding contests in Toronto, but the Canadians showed a strange lack of interest.) One marathon, which began on April 15 in New York’s Audubon Ballroom, was served with a summons after twelve hours, the legal maximum. The participants gamely danced downstairs and into a waiting flatbed truck, kept dancing as it drove to a nearby pier, and danced onto a ferryboat, which took them across the Hudson River to West Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The Garden State proved no haven for lawbreakers, however. West Fort Lee’s mayor ordered the Gotham miscreants out of his city, so they wearily reversed the previous day’s exodus, ending up in a hastily procured room near the Audubon. There the three remaining couples grimly swayed to barely discernible music from a broken-down Victrola playing the same dozen records over and over. Hours later they had to move once again. The somnambulistic hoofers maintained a semblance of dancing in taxicabs and a van en route to East Port Chester, Connecticut, where authorities also demanded a stop but indulgently waited until Vera Sheppard, a nineteen-year-old file clerk, had set a new record of sixty-nine hours. Her hardwon mark held up for two days.

At the height of the frenzy, historians pointed out that marathon dancing dated at least to 1364, when Londoners took to whirling about the streets for four and five days at a time. When Valentine Tuffit of Newport News, Virginia —three days into her own marathon—was told of this, she scoffed to a reporter that “under the ancient calendar system used in 1364 the days were much shorter than days now; that the dancing then was not done according to modern regulations, and that she did not believe it anyhow.”

By May 1 the record had been boosted to 167 hours. (On that same day a Houston musician set a record by playing piano for 66 hours and 22 minutes straight—and no John Cage numbers either.) On May 9 a Dallas man danced 168 hours, a full week. On May 27 a Youngstown, Ohio, couple lasted 182:08. And finally, on June 10, Bernie Brand of St. Louis claimed the all-time championship by shaking a leg for 217 consecutive hours, surpassing by an hour the English actor William Kemp’s famous “nine days’ wonder” morris dance from London to Norwich in 1599 (which was not, it should be noted, a continuous performance).

Around this time Americans started to notice that watching bathrobe-clad zombies shuffle across a littered ballroom floor was not very entertaining. Promoters increasingly abandoned straight endurance contests for hokey human-interest angles and theatrical gimmicks. By the 1930s marathon dancing had degenerated into a cruel spectacle designed to cheer up Depression audiences by showing them someone even more miserable than themselves.

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