On May 23, 1931, a dance marathon/walkathon in Spanaway, located in Pierce County just south of Tacoma, closes abruptly when its organizers are arrested. Dance marathons (often called Walkathons) are human endurance contests in which couples dance almost non-stop for hundreds of hours (as long as a month or two), competing for prize money. The contest in Spanaway has been going on for only a few days at the time of the arrests.
Dance marathons/walkathons became popular diversions in the late 1920s and continued throughout the 1930s as partially staged theatrical endurance events. By the mid-1930s, a handful of professional promoters were mounting dance marathons across the United States.
In 1931, however, this cadre of promoters had not yet solidified. The Spanaway event was billed in an overblown fashion as the ‘Washington State Championship Walkathon Contest” (The Tacoma Times, May 20, 1931). The event probably attracted hopeful local amateurs rather than the professional contestants who in later years comprised the majority of dance marathon competitors.
Arrested were Norman Rieman, the walkathon promoter; G. Breseman, who owned the Spanaway Pavilion dance hall where the contest took place; and Harold Avery, a local merchant whom Breseman had hired to provide the food concession for the contestants. Dance marathon contestants were fed 12 times per day. They ate at a chest-high table, still moving their feet.
Rieman had promised $3,000 to the winning couple, an enormous sum for a dance marathon prize. Most contests at the time paid winners closer to $500.
The men were charged with “unlawfully conducting an immoral, indecent, and obscene dance” (The Tacoma Times, May 23, 1931) and with “keeping the hall open during prohibited hours” (The Tacoma Times, May 29, 1931). Since dance marathons continued around the clock, any venue in which they took place was of necessity open 24 hours a day.
On June 2, 1931, Rieman’s attorney Dave Lindsay petitioned for the appointment of a temporary receiver, since the promoter had “no available assets and is insolvent and unable to pay’” (The Tacoma Times).
Fly-by-night promoters like Rieman, along with the grueling and humiliating nature of the dances, contributed to the seedy, socially marginal reputations for which dance marathons were much condemned.
The arrests in the 1931 Spanaway contest quickly led the City Council of nearby Tacoma to pass an ordinance prohibiting dance marathons within Tacoma city limits.