1930s – Dance Marathon, Movie Musical, Big Apple, Jitterbug

The new dances that developed in this decade were danced mostly by urban middle and lower classes. African Americans influenced dance trends dramatically.

Significant dances

The Dance Marathon was a phenomenon in the lower classes. In a test of endurance, couples competed and winners received cash prizes. In the 1930s, the dance marathon evolved from its original focus on endurance records to a monetized part of show business. Depression-era marathons lasted up to six months, with ten-minute hourly breaks for dancers. If one partner’s knees touched the floor, the couple was disqualified. Entering a dance marathon was often an act of economic desperation by the participants.

The 1920s were the early years of the “talkies” (movies with audio) and the beginning of the classic period of the musical. As a result, Movie Musicals were popular. With exhibition ballroom dancing at its height, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers captured America’s imagination. The lyrical film dance interludes of Astaire and Rogers offered Americans an escape from the harsh realities of the Depression and nurtured the American Dream.

The Big Apple originated in a small southern Black town, in a church-turned-nightclub called “The Big Apple.” A group circle dance, it gave couples the opportunity to show off, or “shine.” The Big Apple incorporated early swing steps and required a “caller.” Arthur Murray called it a combination of swing and the square dance; he was instrumental in popularizing the Big Apple within white culture. It was popular during the Depression because of the psychological comfort it gave of “strength in numbers.” Developed from African American roots, it was popularized throughout society; it was danced at the White House and featured in Life magazine in 1937.

The Jitterbug, popularized by African Americans, requires incredible strength and agility. It was known as the “Lindy” by its African-American participants because it evolved from the Lindy Hop (the “Lindbergh Hop” in tribute to Charles Lindbergh’s historic first solo transatlantic flight in 1927). With airborne acrobatics, it increased the dynamic range of social dance with new levels of athleticism, gymnastics, and aerial moves. “Jitterbug” was also a slang term meaning “the best dance partner.” Harlem’s renowned Savoy Ballroom brought the Jitterbug/Lindy to fame. It was a spectacular dance response to the bold sounds of the Big-Band era.

Historical context

  • The Great Depression is ongoing.
  • US Presidents are Hoover and Roosevelt.
  • Important US policies include the New Deal. Public Works Projects, bank regulation, and Social Security.
  • Winston Churchill is the prime minister of England.
  • Nazis gain power and set up the first concentration camps in Germany.
  • US economy booms with arms orders for World War II


  • Hemingway, Steinbeck, Brecht, Graham Greene, Gide, Dylan Thomas, Garcia Lorca, and Noel Coward were the famous writers of the decade.


  • Wagner, Rachmaninoff, Weill, Copland, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Goodman, and George dominate the music scene.
  • Balanchine’s School Of American Ballet is founded.
  • The Big Band Era beings; jazz morphs into swing.

Visual arts:

  • Dali, Mondrian, Picasso, Miro, and Grandma Moses influence the art scene.
  • Hollywood is booming despite the Depression; idols include Astaire and Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Shirley Temple, and Gary Cooper.
  • Gone With The Wind wins an Oscar for Best Picture (1939).
  • Disney releases its first color film.


  • Einstein writes to FDR about the atomic bomb; Freud, Keynes, Dewey, and Karl Jaspers publish important work.

Daily life:

  • People wait in breadlines; women gain minimum wage.
  • Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to cross the Atlantic.
  • Women wear nylon stockings.

Relevant Dancetime Publications DVDs

AMERICA DANCES! 1897-1948: A Collector’s Edition of Social Dance in Film: Dance Marathon, Jitterbug/Lindy, The Big Apple

DANCETIME DVD! 500 YEARS OF SOCIAL DANCE, Volume II: 20th Century: Dance Marathon Movie Musicals, The Big Apple, Jitterbug

DANCING THE BIG APPLE 1937: African Americans Inspire a National Craze: The Big Apple


TAP DANCE HISTORY: From Vaudeville to Film

GERMAN LINEAGE IN MODERN DANCE: Solos by Wigman * Hoyer * Holm * Nikolais * Louis

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