The year was 1973, and we can only assume the first song ever heard at a THON, “Jumping Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones was played about as much as “Timber” by Pitbull and Ke$ha is in 2014. Nevertheless, no one expected this 30 hour Dance Marathon taking place in HUB Ballroom to blossom into the world’s largest student-run dance marathon.
According to a great feature by Alumni Insider, among those with little hope for the event was the President of Interfraternity Council Bill Lear, who suggested it be used to bring back the traditions of IFC dance marathons from the 1920s and 1930s. Lear reportedly told his neighbor who was associated with the beneficiary, Butler County Association for Retarded Children, not to expect more than $20. Exceeding all expectations, the dance marathon raised $2,136, which would translate into about $11,200 with today’s inflation.
Back in those days, not everybody coming out of THON was a winner, and the dance marathon was an actual competition. In order to be qualified to win the $300 prize, the couple needed to make it the full 30 hours, but even that wasn’t enough, as there were still 17 couples standing at the end.
The other contributing factor in deciding the winner was how much money was donated to them during the dance marathon. Students stopped by the marathon and donated to their favorite couple with each dollar counting as one vote. This was the original way the dance marathon raised money for the beneficiary — with no canvassing, canning, or THONvelopes.
However, getting friends to donate to your cause proved to not be enough. Dancers needed endurance, as they lost points for however long they were not dancing, which included bathroom breaks. In fact, the third place couple, Mikki Sager and Steve Draper, only drank liquids that weekend when absolutely necessary in order to cut down on break times.
“We were probably pretty dehydrated and not functioning very well toward the end,” Sager said.
The average break time that year was five and a half minutes, but the winning couple, Cris Guenter and Sam Walker, used only 77 seconds of break time and lost 10 to 12 pounds each that weekend.
Guenter and Walker were strangers when they were forced into dancing by other students living in the Arts and Architecture Interest House in Leete Hall. Correctly enough, those who nominated them believed the duo had the best chance of winning the Dance Marathon.
“I swam the mile on the swim team, and Sam was a distance runner on the cross country team. They must have thought we stood a chance of lasting through the 30-hour competition,” Guenter remembered.
Without moralers there to keep them entertained, the two relied on unconventional methods to stay distracted according to an interview Guenter gave to The Daily Collegian:
“Some Arts and Architecture students cut a square piece of wood about two-and-half feet squared, with loops of rope, and brought it to Sam and me. We put the loops around ours and another couple’s heads so we could play cards and keep dancing at the same time.”
Despite the dehydration and tired legs, the two made it to the end of the dance marathon thinking they had come in third place. True to THON, the HUB Ballroom was filled to capacity as they were announced the winners of the Dance Marathon and hoisted onto the shoulders of their RAs and were passed up on stage.
While the first THON evolved in time, location, and size to become what it is today, the roots of spending a weekend to raise money for a great cause remains.