Report on the Swing Dance Marathon
July 29-31, 2003 in Cleveland, Ohio
By Hep Jen
We descended on Cleveland from all over the United States and Canada. Some dancers had been training for the Swing Dance Marathon for months. Others, like me, found out about it at the last minute. I was dancing in Vero Beach, Florida on July 20 when someone shouted out "Hey Hep Jen, you should do that dance marathon!" I asked, "What dance marathon?" One thing led to another, and the following week I was heading to Ohio.
Forty-two dancers showed up for the pre-marathon meeting at our hotel at 5pm on Monday, July 28. A glance around the room revealed a number of familiar faces to me, many more unfamiliar, and the organizers, Marty Klempner and Val Salstrom, Lindy Hoppers from Cleveland. After a few quick hellos, Marty and Val welcomed us and briefed us on details about the marathon. They told us about our break schedules, the layout of the venue (the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), and answered our questions. After a quick dinner, we settled in to sleep at around 8pm.
Morning came quickly, and the shuttle vans left for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at 4am. Once at the Hall of Fame, we stashed our stuff in a big tent outside filled with cots. We were marveling at the comfort of the cots, not realizing how little time we would have to enjoy them over the next 52 hours.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a multi-leveled architectural wonder. Our awesome dance floor (provided by Bill Cameron) was set up on a middle level in front of a stage. High glass ceilings gave us a good feel for what time of day it was.
Nervous energy filled the room at the start of the Swing Dance Marathon. I was anxious to get started after a week of thinking about this thing night and day.
I remember very little about the start of the marathon. I know that I danced conservatively for the first couple of hours. Then I threw that theory out the window and danced like ME for the rest of the marathon.
For the dance marathon, the basic definition of "dancing" was: You had to shift your weight. So no matter what type of dancing you did, your feet had to leave the floor. This definition led all of us to a Zen-like rocking back and forth during points of the dance marathon. It became second nature after awhile. Many of us could not stop rocking back and forth for days after the marathon was over.
In a dance marathon, you must dance to every single solitary song whether you like it or not. Being forced to dance to some songs that I wouldn't otherwise have danced to was a good exercise in tolerance. Overall, the music was great, thanks to the four DJs that kept us moving and inspired for 52 hours.
You could dance however you wished, and you could switch partners as often as you liked. Solo dancing was permitted. I found it much more interesting to dance with a partner, and time passed quicker that way because we could save each other from boredom. I danced with every lead in the marathon, and most of the follows too. Sometimes I followed. Sometimes I led. Sometimes I danced solo. I came up with more footwork ideas while dancing solo than I have in a long time. If I could have, I would have videotaped myself so I could use some of my new moves for choreography.
I brought a notepad with me to keep a log of events at the Swing Dance Marathon, for memories' sake. I thought I would have time to write on our breaks. Who was I kidding?
We were given 10-minute breaks for every hour of dancing. The organizers divided us into groups, and we rotated in and out, so the dance floor was always occupied. The first few breaks were uneventful and social. But as the hours wore on, tending to our basic needs became first priority.
We were provided with snacks and beverages just off the dance floor, and we were served three meals a day upstairs, buffet style. The whole event was catered, and the food was terrific. I just wish we had more time to eat it all.
Most of our breaks went like this: Run up or down the escalator to the bathroom. Up and down. Down and up. Oh, and run up two floors to get your meals. Run out to the tent. Run back from the tent. Run, run, run, run. And this was supposed to be our break time! It was tough, but necessary to maximize our break time, so we just sucked it up and ran, over and over and over again. Also: Drink all the liquids you can. Stuff in as much food as your mouth can hold. Change out of your sweaty shirt/pants/shorts/skirt/underwear/socks/shoes. Maybe you'll have 5 minutes left over to lie down on the floor with your feet up in the air. Assemble an icepack for your ailing limbs. Close your eyes.
"Group D, break's over, back on the floor!" And back we went.
I danced Lindy Hop about 70 percent of the time. I also danced Balboa, Collegiate Shag, Carolina Shag, Tap, partnered Charleston, solo Charleston, Blues, West Coast Swing, Salsa, Cha-Cha, the Hustle, Tango, Merengue, Foxtrot, One-Step, Waltz, Polka, and the Middle School Shuffle. I danced every line dance I've ever known: the Shim Shim countless times, the Jitterbug Stroll, the Big Apple, the Madison, the Electric Slide. I learned the Philly Bop and danced that too. I flailed about like Ally Sheedy from "The Breakfast Club". Anything to keep dancing.
Spectators came and went. During the day, people stared at us. I think they didn't know quite what to make of us. Most of the daytime spectators were random people touring the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and they didn't seem to have any knowledge of what we were doing. During the daylight hours, there was usually a camera crew there from a local TV station or CNN or a national affiliate. Reporters interviewed us and asked us to pose for their cameras. At night, the Cleveland dancers would show up and encourage us and dance on the sidelines and give us massages during our breaks. Hooray for the Cleveland dancers!
Every 8 hours, we were granted an additional 15-minute break, which we combined with that hour's 10-minute break to make a whopping 25-minute break. Only on those breaks did we have enough time to lie down on our comfy cots in the tent and close our eyes for more than one minute. I could not fall asleep; there was too much adrenalin pumping through my body. But the mental break was truly refreshing, and upon returning to the dance floor, it was the weirdest thing...
...the dance floor, the whole venue, seemed to change after those 25-minute breaks. It was so odd, otherworldly. Day, night, day, night, days passed in our world, and each time we emerged from our 25-minute comas it felt different. Strange as it was, it became routine after awhile, and we accepted it as part of our new existence.
It was as if we were in our own universe, with a completely unique set of laws and social order, a lindy planet, if you will. The outside world no longer existed, no longer mattered. The rules for the dance marathon became our "normal". What mattered now were our basic tools for survival: liquids, food, and most of all, the dancing. We were like a biology experiment in a Petri dish: 42 of us in a fishbowl of a 1000 square foot dance floor, forced to interact with each other. The outside world came and went with their cameras and visits, but in the end, most of our experience was not with the glory of the record-breaking or the press, but with each other.
All perspective of normal time faded, and time was measured not in time of day, but in the dancing time displayed by the big digital clock on the stage. Every hour completed was met with cheers, no matter what the hour. 10:00 in our dancing time was 3:10pm on Tuesday afternoon. 38:00 in our dancing time was 7:10pm on Wednesday evening. And 45:00 was 2:10am on Thursday morning. After a while, it was like, who cares what time it is in the outside world? In our own world, we were on our own time, with our own time zone.
We learned about what our bodies needed. Bananas give you potassium, but they also give you constipation. Apples relieve constipation. Protein in a bar only works for so long, and then you must have real meat. Elevate your feet on your breaks. Alternate water and sports drinks. Avoid tight underwear. Change shoes frequently.
The cast of characters I met at the Swing Dance Marathon. You have to be crazy to do this sort of thing, it's a prerequisite. I made an eclectic bunch of new friends. You not only got to know someone's dancing style and ability level, but you got direct insight on their character. I knew I was crazy when dancing to "Can't Touch This" with Val during the 33rd hour. We were supposed to go on break, but then that song came on, and we HAD to stay out there and keep dancing. Nuts. We sacrificed most of our precious break time to tear it up in Hammer Time.
Between the 30th and 40th hour, hyperactivity ruled the floor. I was dancing every song as if I just arrived on the dance floor. By the 45th hour, we were just plain delirious.
During the 46th hour, my feet suddenly screamed at me, as if someone stuck knives through the bottom of my feet. Each change of weight was excruciating, and when I was able to take off my shoes, I could see my feet had swollen about one size. I'd like to extend a big thank you to Jan Hurwitz, another dance marathoner from Cleveland, for helping me get through this. Jan retrieved ice and gave me specific advice on what I needed to do on my breaks to make it through. From then on, the only things I focused on during my breaks were my feet. Back on the dance floor, I modified my dancing with less footwork, more arm movements. No more stomping or tap dancing for me. I tried my best to take all bounce out of my Lindy Hop and dance as smoothly as possible. I popped a few Advil and danced on.
Nearly everyone ended up with some kind of ailment or war wound at this point in the dance marathon. Knees, hips, feet were all breaking down. Nurses monitored the event at all times, and they had authority to remove anyone who was physically no longer able to continue the marathon. Those nurses were pretty busy from about the 44th hour onward. I didn't talk to the nurses about my feet because there were many others in worse shape than I was. Only one dancer had dropped out after about 24 hours(due to knee problems), and the rest of us were still hanging in there as we approached 50 hours. Local Cleveland dancers stayed nearly all night long, massaging us on our breaks, tending to our ailments, and fetching water/coffee/insoles/medication/whatever we needed to keep going.
The home stretch to breaking the world record was both the easiest and hardest part. Mentally, we knew we would persevere. Physically, each step was painful until the 50th hour, when the camera crews and news shows revved up their equipment. Exhausted as we were, somehow a camera makes you pull out a set of moves you didn't know you had in you. The final countdown to breaking the record ended in a jam to "Well Git It", full of great dancing, and incredibly, aerials. John Salalila from Windsor, Ontario and I hit the final drop at the end of the jam, making a perfect picture for the news crews and the newspapers the next day. Indeed, our picture made the front page of the Cleveland newspaper, as well as a half-page spread in the Metro section. What a great way to end it all.
We decided to dance for another hour, not finishing at merely 51 hours, but 52. After the record-jam, we kept dancing, but with our main goal already achieved, we were fading fast. Honestly, I don't think we could have lasted much longer. At the end, 41 dancers finished the Swing Dance Marathon with a final record-breaking time of 52 hours, 3 minutes. Jan's pedometer calculated our approximate distance covered at 64 miles.
After the marathon was over Thursday morning, we all went back to the hotel and crashed. A shower and sleep never felt so good. Dinner was provided for us in the hotel lobby, so we set our alarms for 6pm and went downstairs. People were wandering in the room like zombies, but everyone was met with smiles and cheers. And then we were laughing and hanging out as if we had known each other forever. To eat slowly, to savor each bite and have a conversation during our meal without worrying about rushing back to the floor was a real treat.
And what did we do to celebrate that night? We went out DANCING at the Spy Bar in downtown Cleveland. As soon as I got in the door, there I was, dancing up a storm to "Jeep Jockey Jump". My feet were talking to me the whole time, but how could I resist? It was the perfect celebration of our achievement. Several people from the marathon were collapsing to the floor after each song, just as we had during the marathon. I stayed up until 5am, hanging out with my new friends.
That morning I got on the plane to LA for Camp Hollywood, ready for a whole new set of experiences. I was dead tired, but I couldn't stop thinking about the dance marathon and what a memorable time it was.
Sitting around with our fellow marathoners at the end, the question came out quietly, "Would you do this again?" and there was a resounding "YES!". Less than a day had passed, and already there was talk of when the next dance marathon was going to be. Not if, but When. I'm so excited. Wherever, whenever the next one is, I'm there.
The world-record breaking jam at 51 hours.
Alex Dreyer (Houston, TX), Hep Jen (Seattle, WA, now of San Francisco), and John Salalila (Windsor, Ontario).