More than 1,000 Northwestern students danced for 30 hours straight beginning March 4 as part of the University’s 42nd annual Dance Marathon, one of the largest student-run fundraising events in the country. This year’s event raised more than $1.2 million for Blessings in a Backpack and the Evanston Community Foundation.
Nicola Traynor (at far right in photo), a Medill sophomore from Riverside, Connecticut, participated in Dance Marathon for the first time this year. Here’s her first-hand account of one of Northwestern’s most fun – and most exhausting – traditions.
By Nicola Traynor ’18
Thirty hours is a really long time.
This sounds obvious, sure, but there’s nothing quite like being there and realizing what the next 30 hours of your life will look like. There will be no sleep. There will be almost no rest. For the next 30 hours, there is just you, and this tent, and all the people around you who are just as sleep deprived and exhausted as you. For the next 30 hours it will not be up to you when you eat or sit down or stop dancing. And it will all be worth it for that moment at the end, when they unveil the total money raised and you realize how huge of an impact this event truly has. This is the Northwestern University Dance Marathon.
My freshman year, my roommate and I opted out of Dance Marathon, choosing Netflix and pizza in our dorm room instead. On that Saturday afternoon (the event runs from 7 p.m. Friday to 1 a.m. Sunday), I ventured to the tent outside Norris to visit some of my friends who had opted to participate. They were lagging, they were tired, and the tent reeked of sweat and humidity. And yet the energy in the tent was contagious. I felt relieved that after my visit I could leave and return to the comfort of my bed, but I also felt like I was missing out on a really important event for the Northwestern community.
So as a sophomore, I felt like I needed to give Dance Marathon the old college try. I registered in the fall, and before I knew it, it was time to get dancing.
Well, that’s not actually entirely true, because a lot goes into Dance Marathon before the weekend itself finally arrives. There are months of events and fundraising to prepare and raise money. I became the group leader for my team, Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed community service fraternity. I found my own excitement and motivation growing as I contacted more and more people to reach my fundraising goal and even after I reached my goal, not wanting to give up as March 4 became closer and closer. I enjoyed leading a small team and encouraging and supporting my team members in the weeks leading up to the event.
Dance Marathon’s primary beneficiary this year, Blessings in a Backpack, promotes food stability to end childhood hunger. The organization packs backpacks full of food for children from low-income families to take home over the weekends so they won’t go hungry and will instead be able to focus and succeed in school. Dance Marathon’s secondary beneficiary, the Evanston Community Foundation, works to benefit and support our local community. Both of these causes felt inseparable from the Dance Marathon experience: the entire event was anchored around how much these organizations matter, and how much we wanted to help by raising money for them. Just $100 can feed a child for an entire year, and $400— the fundraising requirement for each dancer—can feed four children for a year. There was something so concrete about this concept that made it feel like every dollar mattered, that every extra dollar meant another child would get to eat.
The event itself can only be described as impressively organized chaos. There’s constant movement all over the tent, where over a thousand students converge together; all over the stage, where the student emcees help lead the event and usher different speakers and groups onto the stage; and behind the scenes in Norris, where committee members work to make the event run smoothly, from productions to food to helping bring groups of students to the bathrooms.
On Saturday morning, the finance committee took the stage. Our fundraising goal inside the tent, they announced, was to raise $10,000 in 10 hours. We had to contact anyone we could, anyone who was left, to keep raising money. This was the final push. I sent an almost incoherent string of text messages trying to get everyone I knew to donate. A few hours later the committee announced that an anonymous corporate donor would give $10,000 more if we managed to raise $25,000 in the tent. We raised over $30,000, which jumped to over $40,000 thanks to the anonymous donation. There was a thrill each time the committee took the stage to announce our progress. We were still raising money, and this time—our time in the tent—could still be used to make a difference. This was about more than just reaching our fundraising goals. This was about pushing past everything we thought was possible, past our own physical and mental restrictions as we raised every dollar and cent we could.
All over the tent students were jumping and dancing and waving their hands around. Above, condensation began to form and drip down from the constant heat and humidity, known as when it “rains sweat.” Below, food crumbs were crushed into dust from the snacks we consumed while dancing in the tent. Food became simple fuel, consumed only for energy and to make up for calories burned. Taste became meaningless by the time lunch rolled around on Saturday afternoon, when I scarfed down a ham and cheese sandwich while walking back into the tent.
Every three hours there is a 15 minute break, when dancers flow from the tent out to the various rooms in Norris that had been turned into changing rooms. Time is scarce and decisions have to be made. You can use the time to peel the sweaty socks off your feet and change into a costume that fits the next block’s theme. All around the edge of the McCormick Auditorium, where I found myself between block changes, people would lie with their backs to the floor and their feet straight up in the air, their heels leaning against the wall. This is meant to drain the blood from your feet, to reduce swelling in as little time as possible. The break always ends too soon.
There are moments when it is painful, when your legs ache and your feet cramp and you’re tired and the music feels too loud and the tent feels too crowded. There are moments when the energy in the tent feels low, especially in the lengthy middle of an even lengthier chunk of time. But it’s all worth it for Block 10, the final three hours. It’s worth it when the student leaders take the stage and announce that we’ve raised $1.2 million. It’s worth it when they hold up the giant checks and hand them to representatives from Blessings in a Backpack and the Evanston Community Foundation. It’s worth it when balloons fall from the ceiling and you’ve been up for 48 hours and dancing for 30 of them and your feet hurt like they’ve never hurt before and you’re so proud to have made it, because you’ve made it this far and all you can think about is how to keep going.
As the event was ending, one of the leaders on stage — it was difficult to see who through all the movement — said, “Take these lessons that you’ve learned inside the tent, take what you’ve learned about yourself, about perseverance, about hard work and dedication and strength, and bring them with you outside the tent.”
I considered these words. I thought about all the moments that had led to this one, the moments of pain or exhaustion or excitement or hope. But most of all I thought about the important and simple act of sticking with something, of truly devoting yourself to being where you need to be and feeling present. I thought about how that’s really all it takes to accomplish the goals we set for ourselves, the brutal, impossible goals that push us to exhaustion. That maybe you just need to find a way to be there, to put in the time and effort for the things that really matter, in order to make a difference. And then, finally, you can go back to your dorm room and sleep.
To learn more about Dance Marathon, go to nudm.org.