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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 37 - Hold Me Closer Zombie Dancer (Health Week)

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

Sam's Episode Notes: The Dance Marathons of the 1920s and 1930s

This is a rather silly history podcast, and today I've found something incredibly stupid. And also fairly innocuous sounding which was in fact a horrendous test of human grit and endurance in the face of absolute desperation. But mostly, it's really funny. And that is the dance marathon, which was a craze in depression era America.

Now, Tom, you've heard of modern reality TV like Big Brother, and staged sporting events like professional wrestling, yes? Sorry, spoiler alert.

And you've heard of ridiculous sporting challenges like touch the truck?

Well this is where they stemmed from. An incredible craze from the 1920s in which couples would dance. And dance. And dance. As if their lives depended on it. Which occasionally they did.

Because as we all know, Tom. The point of reality TV isn't to watch normal people living their best lives. No. It's to watch the freak show unfold. And if there's one thing we've learned about mid-20th century America on this podcast, Tom, it's that they love a freakshow. And the dance marathon was an absolute freakshow.

The craze began in 1923, when a woman called Alma Cummings danced for 27 hours, getting through six dance partners in the process. Now this was an exciting time in America. The idea of public dancing and getting close to a partner – who could be a complete stranger – was really only just taking off as morally acceptable and public dances were commonly boycotted and protested by campaigners, who branded themselves as walkathons to try and get around the campaigners. But of course trying to ban something is a surefire way to make it take off, so these events found themselves being wildly popular, with the best partners finding fame, fortune and sponsorship deals along the way. But they really took off following the October 1929 stock market crash and the great depression, for really desperate reasons, but we'll come on to that in a little bit.

The idea was simple: A dance hall. A host of couples. A cash prize. And go. The dancers would set off, and dance, and dance, and dance. And they would not stop. These dances lasted for literally months at a time. And as the weeks dragged on, and the dancers got more and more tired, injured, argumentative and desperate, the crowds would get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Audiences were charged 25 cents entrance, and would very quickly become invested in their preferred couples, coming back night after night to see them dance.

The format was simple – the couples would dance for 45 minutes, then they'd get 15 minutes to do anything they needed to do – sleep, wash, eat. And that was how it went. For weeks. Now that sounds kind of ok – You get six hours off a day. But it's in 15 minute segments, after which an air horn is blown and you have 30 seconds to get back on the dance floor. So you end up only catching 10 minutes sleep an hour. In excruciating pain from hours of dancing and holding up your partner. And when I say holding up – I mean holding up. People got so exhausted it was completely normal and expected to fall asleep on the dance floor, so people would work shifts, holding up their partner and continuing to shuffle whilst they slept. The men would hold up the women, and the women would hold up their male partners, dragging them around. People washed, shaved and eat on the dance floor. They'd write letters home whilst waltzing. Some of the female dancers would knit and sell items to the punters.

And it was this that people paid to see. Not the dancing, the freaks dragging their comatose partners around a stifling hot gym, desperately trying not to drop them before the next rest and therefore get disqualified. Quite often, competitors would go what they called 'squirrly' after several days, hallucinating, having conversations with imaginary friends, grinning wildly and grabbing at things that weren't there. And that was considered the height of entertainment at these events.

Now this all happened during the daytime, when the crowds were sparse and the music came off the gramaphone. At night, when the stalls were packed, and I mean PACKED, there would be jive bands playing all night at high tempo, and the dancers would be expected to really put on a show. Rest breaks would be cancelled and you'd be on your feet for four or five hours trying desperately not to fall asleep or sprain something. Horrible injuries were common. Sprains, twists, shattered bones in the feet, illness, corns, bunions and even a form of trench foot were all common and let to crowds whooping and hollering as increasingly desperate people hobbled around on the dancefloor.

And then there was the drama. Now the organisers weren't stupid, they knew how to market their freakshows. They would hire famous dancers to pretend to be amateur couples who it just happened could jitterbug like no tomorrow. They'd hire actors to deliberately start fights and steal each others partners, getting involved in romantic trysts on the dance floor. And they would hold so-called derbies to whittle down the competition and keep the crowds coming back for more.

Now, the derbies, Tom. As if dancing and fighting wasn't enough, they'd hold special challenges. Woo! These would sometimes be literal races around the gymnasium, sprints or bleep tests. Couples would find themselves blindfolded or chained together – or to other couples. The music would get faster, and the rest periods would get shorter as the weeks went on. Partners would be forced to carry each other for hours on end. Sometimes, the dance floor would be shrunk or increasingly small circles drawn around the couples which they weren't allowed to leave. If an exhausted dancer wouldn't wake up from the rest period, the women would be slapped and the men dumped into a bucket of ice until they woke up. It really was like battle royal, and it went on night after night after night.

And here's where it gets increasingly sad. Most of the people in these competitions, certainly during the depression, were not professional dancers. They were desperate, unemployed and often homeless people being taken advantage of by event organisers. The prize money was usually around $500, equivalent to around $7000 today and approximately four months wages for the average person. But quite often these dances lasted more than four months, the longest went on for six full months - and only the top two or three couples actually made any money at all.

But most knew they wouldn't stand a chance of winning – the professionals hired in by the event promoters would always take the cash. They were there because it was indoors, they were fed well, and there was a bed for a few short minutes every so often. In fact, to play up the drama and human element of the competitions, many dances held silver showers, where starving couples were pelted with coins and bits of food which they could then send home to their starving kids, who wouldn't see their parents for months.

Quite often, however, these silver showers would be swept up by the organisers, and the families would never see a cent. In fact, the show runners would quite often scarper and leave town without paying anyone, including the winners on the rare occasion an amateur scooped it, as soon as the competition was over, especially in small town America where they knew people wouldn't be wise to the scam. It's estimated that almost every city with at least 50,000 in the US hosted a dance. Those who hadn't held one were known as Virgin Towns and were ripe pickings – they usually only hosted one and then decided never again.

And the audiences, much like for most reality TV shows, weren't the wealthy elite here to laugh at the poor and desperate, they were just the slightly less poor and desperate, out to laugh and make themselves feel better that there was someone worse off than them, in a classic bit of shadenfreude.

The craze lasted until 1931, when a combination of factors saw them largely banned. Movie theatre owners were sick of the lost earnings, and lobbied their councils. Religious and moral campaigners claimed the dances were hotbeds of iniquity and louche behaviour with dance moves that shouldn't be seen in public, and again lobbied to ban them. But the final straw for the reputation of the marathons was the attempted suicide of a woman following a competition in Seattle, where she'd danced for 19 days, including two or three without any sleep at all towards the end, and had only placed fifth. The events continued until the late 1930s, but their heyday was over and they were confined to increasingly small towns with slim pickings.

The marathons have largely been forgotten now, but were a source of huge controversy and, in fact, an oscar winner – the 1969 film 'they shoot horses, don't they?', a film based on the 1935 novel of the same name and which was one of Jane Fonda's defining roles.

Tom's notes: The Pineal Gland or ‘third eye’

Medical, factual, scientific overview

· Endocrine gland; which means it secretes hormones, above and behind the eyes.

· It plays a role in sleep regulation through the secretion of the hormone melatonin

· May also play a role in regulating menstrual cycles

o But that’s enough about that Sam! We don’t talk about ladies menstruation; that’s taboo.

o In truth, it’s probably to do with the fact that most animals mate seasonally, so it’s good to know when to be ready for a shag. Sping is in the air and I feel a spring in my step and a zing in my gonads

o Tis the season to be horny, tralalalala, girls tone their booty men get brawny, tralalalalala, it’s like Love Island, blame the pineal gland, Spring is the time to get it on

· It’s present in almost all vertebrates

· It’s closely connected in evolutionary terms to the parietal (pa-rye-ital) eye possessed by many lizards, tuataras, frogs and fish (but not mammals)

o As with the pineal gland, the parietal eye’s function is to regulate sleep through registering levels of light.

· It’s shaped like a pine cone (hence the name) and is about the size of a pea.

· The gland commonly calcifies as we get older, making it very visible of x-rays.

o There is no evidence to suggest that this is anything untoward; just part of general aging.

Now, let’s turn to the history of the pineal gland; not evolutionary history, but a history of our understanding of the pineal gland.

Rene Descartes

· I love this podcast; we get from me murdering a Christmas carol with my own ill-fitting rude lyrics to 17th Century French philosophy in 3 minutes.

· “I think therefore I am”; I have no idea what this means but I’m going to quote it in the hope that it makes me sound smart. I’m also going to occasionally use terms like Neoplatonism with no understanding of why a branch of philosophy was named after a type of ice-cream.

· I’ll keep to Descartes the historical figure and not his philosophy because that’s not what we’re here for folks

o Or are we?

· Interestingly, in 1619 when stationed in Bavaria as a mercenary officer, he had one of the first recorded incidents of exploding head syndrome

o His head didn’t physical explored, let’s not be silly.


o It’s an unusual type of auditory hallucination experienced by people when they are either going to or waking from sleep

§ A loud sound often accompanied by flash of light

o He supposedly came to from this episode with a new understanding of mathematics and geometry

§ Presumably cranial liquid dynamics

· Descartes refers to the pineal gland in his first book, the Treatise of Man, and in his last book, The Passions of the Soul. He considered the pineal gland to be, quote, "the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed."

o Descartes believed in the separation of the body and the soul.

In the 19th Century, a Russian charlatan and spiritualist, sorry tautology, called Helena Blavatsky connected the pineal gland with the third-eye concept apparent in Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism

· This third eye is like a gateway to a higher state of consciousness, enlightenment etc.

· And there have been some studies that suggest that the pineal gland can produce a psychoactive substance but this is certainly not conclusive and weighty evidence.

In a nutshell, the pineal gland has developed into a subject area of pseudoscience and bullshittery.

· I first came across it when listening to a famous British bodybuilder on a nut-job radio show talking about a conspiracy to calcify everyone’s pineal gland with fluoridated water to stop them reaching higher realms of consciousness (a few too many steroid injections and forced reps me thinks).

· And this is quite a widespread conspiracy theory; ranging from the slightly neurotic health nuts who think fluoride should be removed from water supplies because it makes them cognitively slower to full out “It’s the Rothschilds” controlling out thoughts, hold on, I thought about the Rothschilds, do they know I’m thinking about them? Arghhhh!

Here’s a quote from a website:

But do you want to hear the best part?

Back then, it would take months or even years of severe training to activate the pineal gland.

However, nowadays, we have SO MUCH MORE access to anything!

With the right amount of belief and motivation, you can actually activate your pineal gland in a matter of weeks!

By consistently practicing and listening to energetically programmed audio!

Here is a list of foods that will cleanse your pineal gland: turmeric, cacao beans, green plants and vegetables, wild harvested spring water, reishi mushroom tea, grass juices, beets, apple cider vinegar.

· Apple cider vinegar and turmeric set of my bollock alarm

· Wild harvest spring water? What, so water full of agricultural run off? How do you harvest water?

· Grass juices, no thank you


Iodine – It is an essential supplement for pineal gland detox.

Important note:

Increased iodine intake might decrease your calcium levels. Be sure to eat calcium-rich foods, such as kale, flax seeds, broccoli, etc.


A higher level of consciousness will allow you to increase the vibration of your thoughts.

Furthermore, you will be able to take hold and draw the law of attraction.

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