Tuesday, February 13, 2007

They Shoot Horses Don't They?

There is a dancefloor utopia, the fantasy of a Boogie Wonderland, a Saturday night that never stops. They Shoot Horses Don't They (a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy) is the opposite - a dancefloor dystopia, the misery of a dance that drags on because the dancers are too desparate to stop. The context is the west coast of the USA during the 1920s Great Depression, specifically a ballroom on a pier in Santa Monica where a Marathon Dance is in progress.

Dance Marathons were a popular entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s, lasting for weeks or even months at a time, with crowds paying to watch the dancers and associated entertainments (sometimes film stars and other celebrity guests would be arranged). The rules in the novel seem to have been fairly typical: 'you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period'. Hundreds of couples would start off, dropping off with exhaustion until one couple were declared victorious. The incentives to take part were a place to stay (albeit without proper sleep) and food, as well as the small chance of winning a cash prize.

The novel (and the later film) focus on one couple, Gloria and Richard, both unemployed and hoping for a break in the movies. Her exisiting nihilistic despair is deepened by the dance contest, and at the end Richard grants her her wish by shooting her. Gloria is not only a broken down workhorse begging to be put out of her misery, she is also a horse on the carousel bobbing up and down for others' amusement, dreaming only on getting off the Merry-go-round for good.

Like modern day 'reality tv', these spectacles combined participants' desparation for money and the hope of fame with audience appetite for watching other people's suffering ( a point captured in the poster for the 1969 film version with its tagline - 'People are the Ultimate Spectacle'). Gloria certainly speaks for many today when she says 'I'm sick of looking at celebrities and I'm sick of doing the same thing over and over again'.

While everyone who loves to dance must sometimes have had a euphoric utopian moment, most will also be familiar with the opposite sensation - stuck on a dancefloor and feeling blue, wanting to be anywhere else, a slave to the rhythm and not enjoying it at all. Presumably people for whom dance is work must feel this sometimes too, if not often.
(top photo: Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin in the film version)

No comments: