Roller Derby’s Roots in Depression-Era Dance Marathons

This trailer for the 2008 roller derby documentary Hell On Wheels covers the sport’s unlikely 21st Century revival. But there’s an even more surprising story of how this modern all-female, full-contact sport has its roots in dance marathons of the 1920s which were endurance competitions for couples that sometimes lasted a thousand hours.

Those live events were also a predecessor of contemporary reality TV as they mixed celebrities with regular people and drew huge interest by offering thousands in cash prizes during the Great Depression. They also profited their organizers, grossing millions each year. Here’s more details on this fad of the 1920’s and 30’s:

Contestants and spectators alike bought into the staged excitement and competition. Spectators could cheer, make wagers and root for their favorite team, even interacting with the dancers, chatting with them and throwing money. Contestants were enticed by the potential for fame and fortune, from prizes of several thousand dollars to performing contracts, and were fueled by the audiences’ support and applause. Like professional wrestling, the contests were fixed, but both sides bought into the simulated reality of it and participated heartily, provoking each other and egging each other on. The newest episodic entertainment, spectators would return day after day to follow their heroes and see more drama unfold.

In 1935, former film promoter and cinema owner Leo Seltzer was the first to put the coupled competitors on wheels, and so dance marathons evolved into (the term Seltzer trademarked) “Roller Derbies”. The debut event drew a crowd of 20,000 in Chicago. Roller derby historian Jim Fitzpatrick gives more details about those co-ed derby marathons in this interview:

For a roller derby research marathon: visit “roller derby” on How Stuff Works and see lots more roller derby videos here. And watch this documentary for fantastic details on early dance marathons and roller derbies, if you don’t mind it’s own slow-pace…


Actor, nerd, poet, producer, writer mikl-em made his name short so you wouldn't have to. In addition to his blog you can find his writing in "Hi Fructose" magazine and witness him almost life-sized in various plays at The Dark Room Theater in SF's Mission district.

He tends to write about theater, humor, San Francisco culture and history, and stuff that's just plain weird. He thanks Scott for sharing the keys to the Laughing Squid virtual HQ and promises to uphold whatever it is that the mirthful cephalopod would prefer to be uplifted.