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Dancing For the Kids

Click the photo above to see a short video of THON 2011 at Penn State.

Every college & university has their traditions, including events that are held on a yearly basis.  From Homecoming in the fall, to perhaps a rivalry football or basketball game, to a 5K run in honor of a fallen student or perhaps military alumni, which the raised funds go to a worthy cause.  At Penn State, my alma mater, the 3rd weekend in February is the time for the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (aka THON).

This year marks the 40th anniversary of this 46 hour long, on your feet with no sleep marathon, which has been raising money for the Four Diamonds Fund.  THON raises money for the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, assisting families and their children in covering the costs which are incurred from treatment for pediatric cancer.  The four diamonds, which this fund is symbolized by, stand for Courage, Honesty, Wisdom, and Strength.  Taken from a story written by 11 year old Christopher Millard, who was stricken with cancer and passed away just 3 years later, a knight must find these four diamonds to be released from an evil sorceress, a metaphor for cancer.

Needless to say, this event has grown from it's humble beginnings 40 years ago, which back then was held in a student union room on campus and raised a little more than $2,000.  Today it is known as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world.  Last year alone, students, alumni, corporate sponsors and other altruistic individuals helped raise more than $9.6 million.  Since THON started, over $78 million has been collected for this very important cause.

As a student at Penn State, I made sure to take time out of a few weekends each semester to go with my peers from Circle K (a Student Leadership Program, sponsored by Kiwanis) out on various canning trips to collect funds for THON.  As THON weekend arrived, I was sure to head over to Rec Hall (where THON was held from the late 1990s into the early 2000s) to cheer on my organization's dancers, along with the approximately 600-700 other dancers on the floor of the gymnasium.  To set the scene, there is a dedicated DJ who spins the tunes through much of the 46 hour event, along with various time frames set aside for talent shows, emotional testimonials and stories, local band performances, celebrity appearances, and most notable, the THON line dance.  Just about every hour, everything stops for this originally composed song, featuring various snippets of music. The line dance song typically features current events of what happened over the last year, aspects of life unique to Penn State and coordinated dance moves.  The first few times through, the dancers on the floor slowly learn the entire line dance.  However once they are in the groove of it by early that Saturday, it is a rallying song & dance to keep them moving.

Of course, in addition to the 700 or so dancers, there are students that are performing an array of tasks to make this event run smoothly.  From moralers that help the dancers stay energized and sane, to the OPP, which is the clean up crew, to security that works to be sure the right people are on the floor at a given time, to other volunteers that assist the families and children helped by the Four Diamonds Fund that join in on the fun throughout the weekend.  In all, there are thousands of students at Penn State that take the weekend to support this great cause.  I mentioned that THON has changed locations, moving to bigger venues over the years.  Well, since 2007 THON has been held in the Bryce Jordan Center (PSU's home for basketball games, concerts & other big events, aka the BJC).  Along with easily filling the floor, there are over 15,000 seats in the arena that become filled many times over during THON, including the closing few hours on Sunday afternoon.  It is a quite the sight to see all of the colors, the emotion and at the very end when the grand total for the year is revealed, the celebration.

Hopefully, I have sparked your interest in learning more about this spectacular event!  If you would like to donate, head over to THON.org and you can make a donation.  With the passing of legendary coach Joe Paterno this past January, donations can also be made in his honor.  More so, if you would like to experience the event as it is happening (from 5pm Friday-3pm Sunday) go to the website and click on the Live UStream link.  The Penn State College of Communications produces this broadcast, which includes interviews with the dancers, Four Diamonds families, special guests, and of course provides a real-time view of what is happening at the BJC.

You can also follow the happenings of THON on Twitter (@thon), Facebook (PennStateTHON), the Penn State Daily Collegian Student Newspaper and the THON Blog.

"Some day we will dance in celebration. Until then, we dance for a cure."  This truly a tradition like none other and one that is certain to hopefully one day lead to a cure of cancer For The Kids.

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