Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Strict rules, extreme conditions and ferocious competition. The dance marathons of Depression-era America were the reality shows of their day. Attracting huge audiences, they could last for weeks, with competitors stopping for only 10 minutes every two hours to sleep or change their clothes, eating while they danced. Ten dancers, an MC and a six-piece jazz ensemble bring this drama to life to a soundtrack of songs from the 1930s, performed by soprano Nadine Livingston.
With the popularity of prohibition theme parties and “vintage” cabaret on the rise, it’s easy to forget the grim reality of the Great Depression.
With its soundtrack of live jazz and cast of 1930s-costumed performers, Dance Derby begins as what looks like an entertaining dance show, but gradually grows darker. The main theme, after all, is desperation.
Set during a Depression-era dance marathon, five couples dance for almost 24 hours a day for weeks on end, all desperate for the thousand-dollar prize. One couple, a glossily-smiling pair of dance marathon champions, glide effortlessly around the stage, while a young woman shows up at the marathon hall with no partner, and apparently no real dancing skills either.
Viewed from a modern perspective, the concept of the dance marathon takes on a hellishly dystopian feel. The participants are only allowed to sleep in ten minute bursts every two hours, and we begin to feel uncomfortable as soon as we notice that one of the dancers is visibly pregnant. Even when they’re eating, shaving, or brushing their teeth, every person has to keep their feet moving or face disqualification.
Audiences familiar with the winners vs. losers narrative of reality TV contests may be disappointed with the structure of Dance Derby. Very little time is put into developing the individual characters, and we’re never given any particular couple to root for. On the other hand, this may count in the show’s favour, as it allows us to imagine the myriad of reasons why someone might decide to sign up for such a risky, punishing competition.
Rather than being a pure dance show, Dance Derby is more of an exercise in characterisation in movement. While a few of the couples begin with classic swing steps and genuine skill, within a few “days” everyone is in the same boat: shuffling around the stage, exhausted. Meanwhile, the cynical dance marathon MC calls out the names of each song, trying to drum up support from sponsors as the competitors grow more and more desperate. He’s presenting the show as simple entertainment, but sweating and sagging at the knees, no one onstage is enjoying themselves.