The University of Wisconsin Press

Popular Culture


Dance of the Sleepwalkers
The Dance Marathon Fad
Frank M. Calabria

Popular Press

Dance marathons were a phenomenally popular fad during the manic 1920s and depressive 1930s.  What began as a craze soon developed into a money-making business which lasted 30 years. Some 20,000 contestants and show personnel participated in these events; audiences, the majority women, totaled in the millions. “A Poor Man’s Nightclub,” dance marathons were the dog-end of American show business, a bastard form of entertainment which borrowed from vaudeville, burlesque, night club acts and sports.

The colorful, if bizarre, story of this unusual form of amusement is told here for the first time. Despite the condemnation of vocal critics who regarded this entertainment as unsavory, if not immoral, dance marathons held a peculiar fascination for Americans since they projected traits and values pervasive in America then and now. Dance marathons mirrored the sham side of American culture, its commercialism and opportunism. Operated by paternalistic, often authoritarian, show promoters, dance marathons became for professional and amateur contestants “An Innocent Jail.” Two person teams—a female and male—were virtually incarcerated for weeks or months at a time; they were segregated in living quarters, deprived of normal sleep, and required to compete daily in arduous walking and running contests. Spontaneity and freedom were scarified for routine and regulation.

The author draws upon the humanities and social sciences to analyze the meaning and significance of this form of aberrant play. Dance of the Sleepwalkers is descriptive of a freak form of amusement but, more importantly, it identifies the posture of Americans living in modern times, the automaton!

Frank M. Calabria was, at the time of publication, professor emeritus of psychology at Union College, a psychotherapist, and a long-time teacher and student of social dancing. Ever since graduate school, Calabria has lived in two worlds, academia and the ballroom, and he has continually sought to integrate the two. In his in-depth study of the dance marathon fad, both worlds come together. Psychology (along with kindred social sciences) and literature are used as methods to describe and analyze the dance marathon craze as a disquieting expression of popular culture in America during the two explosive decades of the 1920s and 1930s.

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Cover image is green with a pink drawing on the right hand side of the cover.

LC: 92-073976 GV
226 p
p.   6 x 9
31 b/w photos
ISBN-10: 0-87972-569-9
ISBN-13: 978-0-87972-569-3
Cloth $39.95 t
ISBN-10: 0-87972-570-2
ISBN-13: 978-0-87972-570-9
Paper $19.95 t

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Updated February 8, 2010

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