Why We Dance: The Story of THON

September 26, 2012 at 10:01 am 2 comments

A documentary screening doesn’t sound like the first thing a college student would do at 10 p.m. on a Friday. So when I saw a plethora of THON student volunteers pour into the State Theatre on Friday night––many sporting dresses, high heels, ties, and slacks, no less––you could say I was surprised.

Students at the Bryce Jordan Center make the trademark diamond symbol during THON weekend — an image captured in the documentary that will debut this Thursday.

But the featured documentary,Why We Dance: The Story of THON, helps to explain what 15,000 Penn State students devote themselves to every year––the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, Penn State’s Interfraternity / Panhellenic Dance Marathon (otherwise known as THON). That’s a reason to dress up.

Why We Dance chronicles the year-round efforts put toward Four Diamonds families and the 46-hour dance marathon, which, since 1977, has raised about $88 million dollars for pediatric cancer.

THON is a culture of its own. If you walk down College Avenue and see dozens of people sporting Penn State shirts and sweatpants, you’ll see that many people wearing THON gear, too. I recently noticed that almost 200 of my Facebook friends posted the THON 2013 promo video, especially when THON “captains” were selected. The energy of these students involved is palpable; Kevin O’Connor, a Rules and Regulations captain sitting next to me in the State Theatre on Friday night, agreed with a laugh that THON volunteers are “a different breed” of people––it’s like they’re perpetually over-caffeinated and just excited about life.

Right before the film began, I heard a student volunteer blurt out that everyone in the audience would “need tissues”––this was going to be a tearjerker. I had been to the dance marathon three times and interviewed distraught families about the effects of pediatric cancer on their children. I was pretty sure I had heard it all, and cried about it all.

I was wrong.

I don’t want to give away too many details, but I feel the need to share the quote that turned me into a blubbering mess. The film showed the father of a deceased THON child who said during a support group meeting, “There’s no place other than THON where we can get closer to our daughter.”

But the documentary isn’t entirely depressing stories about cancer. It extensively covered every aspect of THON––the Four Diamonds Fund, Four Diamonds Families and their personal stories, committees, canning, the year-round hospital visits that students make, and fundraising events leading up to THON weekend. The second half of the film was a condensed countdown from Hour One of the 2012 THON weekend, which really showed the dancers’ struggle to stay standing for nearly two days. I’ve been to THON multiple times and I still get chills when I see the fundraising total revealed at hour 46 of the dance marathon; when they showed this part in the film, I couldn’t help but think how impressed a first-time viewer would probably be. When I spoke to O’Connor, a fifth-year senior majoring in industrial engineering, he couldn’t agree more.

“I think the general public doesn’t really understand how much time and effort is put in by every volunteer involved,” he said, adding that the hours he spends on weekly meetings and planning are comparable to a part-time job. “But I thought this documentary was fantastic. It captured all of the things of THON that people don’t get to see if they just talk about the dance marathon in February.”

Will Martin, the 2013 THON overall captain (he oversees everything relating to this February’s dance marathon), made several appearances in the documentary, and says he couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

“I don’t like seeing myself on screen,” laughs the fifth-year communication sciences and disorders major. “But I think it was really cool to just relive my year. I’m very fortunate as a part of the overall committee last year to really have my year documented, and I’ll be able to review it for years to come.”

The documentary, which was produced with the help of the Alumni Association––a major sponsor––and Penn State students at WPSU/TV, will air as a 60-minute program on public TV stations throughout Pennsylvania on Thursday and in late October. (Click here for the broadcast schedule to see when you can watch it from home.)

If you tune in, I have a small piece of advice: locate the nearest box of tissues.

Erika Spicer, Intern

P.S. from the editors: We are looking for readers to share their best THON memories–moments with Four Diamonds families, eventful canning trips, the exhaustion of the final hours., etc.–for an upcoming story. Write your story (no more than 250 words, please) and email it to pennstaterletters@psu.edu. Our deadline is Oct. 10.

Entry filed under: Alumni Association, University Park. Tags: , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jo Lantz Prostko '75  |  September 27, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    How can we see the documentary if we live in South Carolina? We might get our local alumni chapter together to watch. Thanks…

  • 2. Erika Spicer Spicer  |  September 29, 2012 at 8:44 pm


    Erika Spicer here. Sorry for the delayed response! In case you still haven’t been able to find the THON documentary, you can watch it online here at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyIoIWc8Ihk

    Hope this helps :-)

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