Dance Marathons of the 1930s were savage entertainment.

Death by Dancing

As I continue working on edits for Death by Dancing, it continues to amaze me that this kind of savage entertainment existed in modern times. Today I got a letter back from my editor, and to quote her, “–that whole thing with the dance marathons is fascinating. I had no idea. That's quite disturbing – what utter insanity! It's so crazy I wouldn't believe it if somebody just made it up for a story! But as it's historic fact… One of those “Truth is stranger than fiction” things, for sure. A bit of a cross between the Roman Colosseum and reality TV shows like Survivor–“

I'm hoping to release Death by Dancing this November, December at the latest. It's been nice hanging out with Haley and Samantha again.

This interest piece went out with my newsletter, but if you missed that, here it is again.

Dance Marathons of the Great Depression

Fads and Trends

In all of the fads and trends we have witnessed over the last century, few compare in sadness of spectacle to the dance marathons (also called walkathons) of the great depression era. Originating in the early 1920s during the jazz age, the dance marathon was in many ways an extension of the human endurance competitions that were so in vogue at the time. Stunts like bicycle races that lasted for days and flagpole sittings were all part of the landscape in the days before television as people sought to put the previous decade of the great war and Spanish flu behind them.

Crash of '29

After the great crash of ’29 and the ensuing poverty, many people became even more desperate for cheap entertainment. Enter the spectacle of the dance marathon, or as they were sometimes called ‘corn and callous carnivals’.

When I first started researching dance marathons of the great depression era for an upcoming Higgins and Hawke novel, I had in my mind an event that would last maybe two-three days at the most. I thought it was something that was perhaps staged on a particularly long evening or even a weekend; like a telethon or a track-and-field meet. I also imagined they took place in small towns in the Midwest, where people had less to do on a weekend.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. In reality, dance marathons routinely went for literally thousands of hours over the course of two to three months and were held in cities with populations of over 50,000 all across the United States. Many of them had up to one hundred fifty couples registered. There were ten-to-fifteen-minute breaks every hour and meals provided for the contestants, although they had to keep moving their feet while they ate.

During the depths of the depression, many contestants entered simply because it meant good food and a roof over their head for as long as they could stay on their feet. Even if they didn’t win the grand prize, (often a whopping one thousand dollars), at least they wouldn’t starve.

The Dance Marathon Celebrity

Over time, many of the events started taking on even grander ideas, such as running derbies, to further weed out the struggling contestants. These races often resembled death marches with exhausted competitors collapsing and being dragged off the floor.

Promoters often invited celebrities to make an appearance and hosted theme nights. Newspapers were invited to write pieces on the backstories of contestants. This happened particularly as the number of couples thinned out towards the end and the general public became more and more infatuated with their favourite participants. As a result, many of the contestants became minor celebrities. Radio coverage was extremely popular, drawing tens of thousands of listeners every night. Polite society at the time regarded this as repugnant and voyeuristic, while many others thought it was a good way to spend 25 cents for a chance to sit in the stands for an evening. To organizers, a successful event was one that made a lot of money and resulted in no arrests.

In Death by Dancing we’ll learn how Haley Higgins views the whole affair. There’s another murder to solve and a killer to bring to justice.

Death by Dancing
Death’s a jig!

A Dance Marathon in the North End of Boston in 1932 turns deadly at midnight. Samantha Hawke had entered as an insider reporter for the Boston Daily Record, and quite honestly, as a single mother during the depression, could use the extra cash. She has it better than most, rooming with Dr. Haley Higgins, the city’s new Chief Medical Examiner, but she hates the financial imbalance between them, and wants to do her part. 

When Haley Higgins arrives on the scene, she's surprised to find the dead woman is the widow of a man whose body still lay in the cold cabinets of her morgue. She has reasons to believe the man’s death wasn’t natural, and now, with his wife having succumbed to the same symptoms, her convictions of foul play are stronger than ever.

Sam and Haley work together to determine which contestants in the dancing contest had means, motive, and opportunity. And most of all, how to keep the killer from striking again.


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