The Bizarre World Of Dance Marathons: Hallucinations, ‘Dancing’ For Food And Medical Care

Those who think Dancing with the Stars is tough clearly know nothing about the phenomenon of the dance marathon.

Popular in the early 1920s, America sunk into the bizarre world of dance marathons, where participants had to remain on their feet for as long as possible.

In what might seem like the workout from hell, dance marathon participants had hallucinations from physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and constant pressure from audiences – all done to compete for a cash prize as well as food and medical care.

The phenomenon of a dance marathon began in the early 1920s and gained enormous popularity across the United States.

In what seems to be the most messed up version of Dancing with the Stars, dance marathon participants had to keep moving on the dance floor for 45 minutes straight before they were given 15 minutes of rest each hour.

Disturbing photos shown by the Daily Mail depict human suffering on the dance floor, with many participants photographed dead on their feet after months-long dance marathons.

An outraged user in the comment section wrote that “the organizers should be charged with abuse,” while another one pointed out, “I’ve a feeling they’re all long dead.”

Another photo shows a large audience of at least 1,000 people gathered in what looks like a school gym, with a dozen dance marathon contestants resting in their beds during the 15-minute rest time as several doctors checked on their health.

Dance marathon jury members watched as exhausted couples shuffled around the dance floor, collapsing against one another from sleep deprivation.

The idea of a dance marathon was to keep moving without the knees touching the floor for 45 minutes before contestants were given 15 minutes to sleep, which was also part of the big show.

While one might think that dance marathons were one of the cruelest forms of physical abuse against people, the spectacle nonetheless drew large crowds, and the phenomenon was widespread all across the U.S. in the early 20th century.

The dangerous dance competition even had its record: the longest dance marathon lasted more than 157 days. That’s 18 hours of physical activity a day for more than five months, and only around six hours of sleep at best (if the sleep that gets interrupted every 15 minutes can even be considered sleep).

Dance marathons are now thought of as a form of 'slow torture.'
Dance marathons are now thought of as a form of 'slow torture.' [Image by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images]

Dance marathon participants shuffling across the dance floor succumbed to hallucinatory states due to physical exhaustion and sleep deprivation, but people kept signing up for the dance competition in an attempt to win food and medical care.

They surely needed that medical care after having suffered so much damage from the unhealthy dance competition — and the winners would surely use that much-needed food to replenish their skin-and-bone bodies.

Dance marathon promoters had to seek new towns in order to draw large crowds, as the phenomenon was plagued by both the decline in popularity and reports of human suffering. The phenomenon of dance marathon started losing its appeal in America in the late 1920s but was revived during the Great Depression.

Dance marathon contestants often had to hold each other up to stay awake and on their feet.
Dance marathon contestants often had to hold each other up to stay awake and on their feet. [Image by Dan Loh/AP Images]

Reports of dancers suffering from hallucinations, collapsing on the dance floor and other health complaints started grabbing headlines in America’s newspapers up until 24 states banned dance marathons by 1935, citing health and moral concerns.

After America got up from its knees after the Depression, there were some attempts for dance marathon promoters to revive the phenomenon, but the spectacles no longer attracted large crowds.

By the end of the World War II, the phenomenon of dance marathons was long forgotten in the United States.

[Featured Image by CHP/AP Images]