At a later time, I learned that Emma’s parents had died in a head-on crash when she was about 16 years old. Out on her own, she married early. Within a year, however, she separated from her surly husband, a young Spokane truck driver. It had been a bad teenage marriage from the beginning.
For the next year or two, Emma worked in a small Spokane dance studio, teaching farm boys how to dance the Fox-Trot. At the age of 21, she paid for her own divorce. Early in the depression, the dance studio folded. And Emma was dead broke—left without a hope in hell.
For months on end, she was out of a job. She started working the streets. The marathon dance contest sounded like a way out.
The promoters’ concept for these contests was simple: You get the kids to dance ‘till they drop. And you get the crowds to come out and watch.
In Portland, the contest was held in a fading dance pavilion across Highway 99 from the popular Jantzen Beach Amusement Park. We sat on circus bench seats surrounding the dance floor. At one end they had built a platform where people said an orchestra played on weekends. I never heard them play. On the nights we attended, amplified canned music blared over the air.
Back of the platform, the promoters had draped a huge curtain. Emma told us later that behind the curtain were cots for the rest breaks, a dressing room area, food counter and washrooms.
The contestants danced for one hour and 50 minutes a stretch. Then a whistle blew. And they got a 10 minute rest period for a quick sleep or something to eat or wash- up or whatever. That was it.
About 150 couples entered the grueling event in Portland. Half of them dropped out during the first week.
A big sign on the curtain back of the platform kept track of the elapsed time and the number of couples remaining. It’s hazy for me now, but I think when we walked in that night, the sign read ELAPSED HOURS: 220. COUPLES LEFT: 66. Something like that.
Emma told us that during the first week, people actually danced. From then on, however, it quickly degenerated into a sad exhibition of dead-eyed couples, shuffling to the music, hanging on, supporting each other, swaying side to side, desperately trying to stay awake and to keep moving.
Collapse…hit the floor…and you’re out.