Dance Marathon keeps us moving to same beat

Opinions Column: Past Imperfect, Remembering Rutgers' History

In the early 1970s, the fraternity brothers of Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) began sponsoring Rutgers University Dance Marathon. In bringing the competition to campus, they drew on a tradition that extended as far back as Medieval England. During the 1920s, dance marathons became popular in the United States as endurance tests with prizes for the last couples standing. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, they offered luckless young people food, shelter and a chimerical promise of a cash reward in spectacles of humiliation often cynically manipulated by their promoters. Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," and the 1969 Sydney Pollack film adaptation of the novel, starring Jane Fonda, captured the grizzly underside of these contests. More recently, that story has been updated by Rutgers Professor of Dance Julia Ritter's production of "Marathon Dancing: Letters to Wall Street in the Era of Wonderful Nonsense," which carried these tales of desperation forward to the financial collapse of 2007 and 2008.

In contrast, college students organized dance marathons for charity. The ZBT marathon, which began in 1971, was among the first nationwide. In addition to the long history of dance marathons, ZBT's initiative drew on a more recent tradition of fraternity-sponsored fundraising contests, such as the Alpha Phi Omega "Ugly Man on Campus" charity drives of the 1950s and 1960s (Alpha Phi Omega is a service fraternity and ZBT a social fraternity). Rutgers' first dance marathon also came at a moment when the traditional dances that had cemented student culture for almost a century — soph hop, junior and senior prom and, at Rutgers, the Ag barn hop and the military ball — were floundering as the student population grew too large for such collective events and the counterculture politics of the era mocked the campus life of the past.

Couples entered the early marathons sponsored by particular fraternities or dorms (the latter, as often from Douglass as Rutgers College). Dancers paid an entry fee, and their sponsors worked to raise additional money, mostly during the three-day spring weekend that the marathon spanned. They danced on the hardwood of the College Avenue Gymnasium and slept there during time-outs. The winners were well-rewarded with a trip to the Caribbean or to Europe. Rutgers College radio, WRSU, broadcasted the dances and played the music, and the Targum reported that 1970s Rutgers students amazingly seemed to know the steps to the Bunny Hop and the cha-cha. The Rutgers Glee Club appeared periodically, once performing under legendary director F. Austin "Soup" Walter, a rousing rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The first marathon attracted merely a dozen couples and raised only a few thousand dollars. The dance performances were stolen by a gay couple, a story not reported by the newspaper — gay liberation had begun at Rutgers two years earlier when black activist Lionel Cuffie helped found the Rutgers Gay Alliance.

By 1976, the Marathon was making more than $40,000 for the American Cancer Society, and the Targum reported almost double that amount by the end of the decade. Then trouble set in. Campus leaders questioned whether a disproportionate amount of the money given to the American Cancer Society was going to things other than research and patient care. Both participation and fundraising lagged in the late 1970s. Many of the dorms ended their sponsorships, while the fraternities remained committed, and ZBT began to work with Project Hope (and later the National Multiple Sclerosis Society) rather than the American Cancer Society, the marathon was clearly sputtering. Added to its troubles was a dispute with the University about an external sponsorship from a national beer company. By the later 1980s, the Marathon was dead, having run out of steam just as the weary dancers did chasing elusive hopes in the 1930s.

Only to be reborn. In 1999, after a couple of years of failed attempts, students with fraternities and now sororities leading the way, launched a new dance marathon targeted at fundraising for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. In its second year, fundraising topped $100,000. Last spring, 2015, the Rutgers University Dance Marathon raised almost $700,000 for the Embrace Kids Foundation. The new marathon was, in fact, a year-round event, with various fundraising drives initiated in both fall and spring semesters. Dancers neither competed nor danced until they dropped. 

Currently they sign-up for a 12-hour shift, and their prize is getting to meet some of the children the dance is helping. Nationwide, hundreds of universities and high schools sponsor similar dance marathons, including many of Rutgers peer institutions in the Big Ten.

Today, the New Brunswick campuses alone of Rutgers are as big as a small city, and few common events tie people together in a real community. The dance marathon, then and now, is a remarkable student-led effort to compensate for that fragmentation of a common culture.

Paul G. E. Clemens is a professor of history and author of "Rutgers since 1945: A History of the State University of New Jersey."  He will alternate the column, "Past Imperfect" with Benjamin Justice, chair of the Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Administration in the Graduate School of Education, and Carla Yanni, a professor in the Department of Art History. Their column runs on alternate Mondays.

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