One of the things that has surprised me over the last few months has been the resurgence of dance in various forms as a staple of the TV entertainment schedules. Not that I’ve actually bothered to watch any of it; having two left feet and an aversion for sequins and modern dance has meant that vast tracts of the viewing schedule have been out of bounds for me recently. When I was a kid I remember watching ‘Come Dancing’ occasionally with my mum – professional dancers doing things with odd sounding names like ‘Rhumbas’ and ‘Tangos’. The only Tango I’ve ever enjoyed fully (including the orange drink) was the one in one of the Addams family films….
It seemed that Dance was taking over from reality TV as a source of programming material, and I after chatting about it with my wife we started to wonder whether we were seeing a modern day and much diluted equivalent of the ‘Dance Marathons’ from the 1930s depression that gave rise to the film ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?‘
The Dance Marathons of the Great Depression were events in which couples competed to see who could dance for the longest – frequently going for over 24 hours. Couples would drop out when they were exhausted, and the lucky winners would walk away with a few hundred or a thousand dollars. The marathons gave people without much hope the opportunity of getting their hands on a lump sum of money that, if not life changing, would certainly keep the wolf from the door for a while. Of course, the possibility of illness or death from exhaustion was always there.
Obviously, we don’t see that sort of thing happen today – but the analogy is rather striking. Both times of recession, both periods in which there was severe cultural and environmental issues (back in the 1930s the political extremism came from the Fascist right and the environmental disasters came not from global warming but from soil erosion problems in the US Midwest). The difference is that today the process is drawn out of weeks and viewed by millions, and, if we include shows like Britain’s Got Talent, has potentially tens of thousands of people who audition and never get to the televised finals.
Will we ever see something like those marathons happen today in the UK? I doubt it; but I wonder how far the various talent and ‘public access’ dance shows like ‘Got To Dance’ will go in the pursuit of audiences? The demise of ‘Big Brother’ may just be a temporary hiccough in the history of reality TV; perhaps the way forward will be a return to the past.