In the 1930s, hours-long dancing competitions called dance marathons were an opportunity to be fed and sheltered amidst a severe economic depression. Often running for more than 24 hours, the events quickly escalated from a quirky gimmick born in the Roaring ’20s to an exploitative entertainment phenomenon for Americans desperate for free entertainment and a chance at winning big. Pictures of dancers holding their sleeping partners as they shuffled around the dance floor were printed in papers across the country, especially as the fad became exceedingly popular in poor, rural areas.
But when San Francisco nonprofit The Lab hosts their 12-hour virtual Dance-A-Thon next month, they’ll be turning the tables on a nearly 100-year tradition. Participants in this dance marathon, taking place from April 10 at 7:30 p.m. to April 11 at 7:30 a.m., aren’t only competing for prizes — they’re also raising money so that The Lab can continue supporting artists who have struggled amidst the pandemic. The virtual event has a fundraising goal of $25,000 to support Bay Area performers, writers, zine-makers, and other artists from marginalized communities.
“Funds raised during the Dance A Thon will help The Lab continue to provide direct financial relief to artists while offering all of us a chance for celebration and connectivity” said Executive Director Dena Beard. “Let’s dance!”
The Lab is both an arts organization and performance space founded in 1984 by art students at San Francisco State University. It relocated to the historic Redstone building in the Mission District in 1995, where it still stands today. The organization, emphasizing interdisciplinary artistic collaboration and specifically elevating underrepresented artists, was particularly well known for its eclectic calendar of music and theater performances pre-pandemic. Over the last twelve months, they’ve hosted a series of public conversations titled “The Forum,” covering topics like the politics of dropping out, creativity in the face of racism and isolation, and improvisation through filmmaking.
In addition to hosting events, the organization also commissions creative projects and provides direct funding to artists in need. Constance Hockaday, a local creative who specializes in converting boats into powerful multi-dimensional artistic spaces, says Beard came to her aid during the pandemic. “She says how much do you need? How much is your rent? I’m sending it to you today,” according to Hockaday. “In that moment there was an overwhelming feeling of care and being held by a community.”
Dance-A-Thon participants must raise $75 to receive a link to the live streamed event, where they’ll get 10 minutes out every hour to rest before boogying through the remaining 50 minutes. Those who raise more than $150 will receive a Dance-A-Thon bandana, while Bandcamp gift cards will also be awarded to the best dancer, highest fundraiser, and last dancer left standing. Participants can sign up on The Lab’s website.