Thursday, May 21, 2009

Endurance and the American Way

“Here in the half-light they lie, these sprawling, unconscious forms, their cots side by side, their clothing hung in listless disarray ... a girl is sprawled, her lips moving in pain, as she moans incoherently, and jerks her hands. Bending over her is a man, her ‘trainer’ apparently, who massages her swollen feet with some ointment. Beside her, another girl is lying, her mouth open to reveal her gold-crowned molars, while flies crawl across her closed eyes and buzz against her chin.” (Alice Elinor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 8, 1928).

The above passage is from a news article on Depression Era dance marathons. Marathons which involved depraved, poverty-striken American couples dancing for an average of 40 days straight with 15 minute breaks every hour. Dancers were motivated by the 12 meals (hardly square) they received each day, as well as a grand prize of--in some cases--roughly a thousand dollars cash. Meanwhile, motivation for the organizers consisted of all the income to be made from wealthy onlookers with nothing better to do. June Havoc, a former child actor and participant in such dances in the 30s as a teenager, explained to Time magazine in 1959:

“Our degradation was entertainment; sadism was sexy; masochism was talent.”

My interest on the subject was aroused as I sat through my third viewing of the 1969 Sydney Pollack film They Shoot Horses, Don't They? starring Jane Fonda. And my interest in watching this film yet again came from being introduced to "Dancing with the Stars"--a far cry from the brutal marathon style; nevertheless, degrading and strange on some level.

What strikes me about dance show entertainment--whether it is performed to garner attention to professional performers, or to degrade average Americans competing for sustenance, is that it is a perversion of dance--pure and simple. When I think of dancing couples I want to think of old-timey romance; innocent encounters with first loves. I don't want to think of C-list celebrities in gaudy ice skating outfits smiling until their faces are sore. And I sure as hell don't want to think of men and women on the brink of collapse, swaying back and forth like circus animals in a Depression Era scheudenfraude.

Here are some fun archival pics of dance marathons I found upon investigation:


This is the death of dance and romance. This is the American Way.

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