Seattle’s first and only dance marathon began on July 23, 1928, at the city’s armory. At these events, contestants competed for cash prizes by dancing for days at a time, with only short rest breaks each hour. As the days went on and the contestants became more and more exhausted, they struggled simply to stay on their feet, and often suffered hallucinations and other symptoms of severe sleep deprivation.
An ad recruiting contestants for the Seattle event called attention to the $2000 in prize money and encouraged, “If you are out of work why not enter? …No entry fees, no expense to you whatever.” Another ad highlighted the fact that a waitress had won first prize in Minneapolis. Publicity for the event noted that “physicians’ services will be available throughout the marathon.”
Thirty couples entered the contest, and while one dropped out after the first day, the rest carried on. Organizers placed ads in the Seattle Times publicizing the ongoing event and encouraging spectators: “They have danced over 112 hours and are still going strong – Come any time, day or night”; “215 hours of dancing and the hoofers are still plodding away.”
As the condition of the dancers deteriorated, complaints increased from women’s clubs and city officials, who demanded that the contest be ended. Finally, on August 13, the National Guard forcibly removed the three remaining contestants from the floor, saying that the armory was needed for military drills. The city’s health officer had also declared he would shut down the contest that day because of the garbage that had piled up on the dance floor. The Times reported that “to prevent any of their number being adjudged winner by reason of leaving the floor last, the dancers linked arms and limped away together.”
Many in the city were appalled by the whole thing and lobbied for City Council to pass an ordinance outlawing future dance marathons. A Times editorial opined, “That witless contest against fatigue should never have been permitted. As a spectacle it takes rank somewhat below that of flag-pole sitting or coffee-drinking contests. It appeals to morbid tastes which find pleasure in human suffering or in side-show freaks… Before Seattle forgets the repugnant affair entirely, it should take what steps may be necessary to prevent a repetition of the spectacle.”
Council obliged by passing Ordinance 55985, which required anyone wishing to hold a physical endurance contest to first obtain a permit from the Chief of Police. The ordinance also specified that any such contest “shall terminate at or before midnight of the day on which it begins,” thereby outlawing dance marathons in one fell swoop. The ordinance was amended in 1931 to note that the law “shall not be construed as related to or prohibiting the holding of six (6) day bicycle races.”
See other Archives Finds of the Month here:
For other interesting images and textual items, check out the Seattle Municipal Archives’ photostream on flickr: