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A Review: Why We Dance, The Story of THON

By the end of the opening credits you will feel it. The passion and the pride. The pain and the hope. It will fill whatever room you are in as it filled The State Theatre last Friday night at the VIP premiere. When the sound dies down between scenes you will hear the sniffling of your friends as they fight the wave of emotions that the THON documentary invokes.

“Why We Dance: The Story of THON” is the perfect depiction of what Penn State students have been doing for over 40 years. If you’ve never been to THON, or are just starting your Penn State career — and hopefully getting involved with a committee or organization — you will begin to understand the magic of THON and realize how important it is to this school and the families it helps.

If you have already been to THON, all the memories from last February will come rushing back and have you asking for more. If you’ve canned, had a Four Diamonds Family assigned to your club, or run a leg of The Hope Express, you will remember those experiences vividly. In only 56 minutes, an entire year’s worth of fundraising in the snow, standing for 46 hours, and helping a child and their family through their toughest days is perfectly conveyed.

The movie begins with a “THON through the years” montage, showing the totals and images of THON weekend from previous years. Those new to THON will learn a brief history of the organization and see the most important events of the last 40 years that have led to the THON we know today.

The first thing I noticed was how well each scene flows together. Nothing felt forced. I have always noticed that THON has a certain flow to it where each event and aspect fit together without overshadowing each other. “Why We THON” certainly makes it seem that way, too. Each image has a purpose, whether it’s Bryce Carter bowling with a brace on his leg due to the tumor that makes it hard for him to walk or the swagtastic pants (in case you want to get me a THON weekend gift, *wink*) that are worn by Hank Angus, who envisioned The Hope Express.

The incredible imagery that only a year round, kid focused, fundraising campaign by college students can provide is somehow matched by an equally powerful soundtrack. You’ll dread the scenes that begin with the low, melancholy piano notes that signal parents speaking about the moment that they found out that their child was diagnosed with cancer, or worse, when they passed away in their arms. You won’t be able to hear the first line of the scenes that begin with carnival-esque horns as the whole room bursts into laughter at the antics of Club Croquet. The uplifting notes that precede the most inspirational segments of the documentary will make you feel like Chris Millard knew that his story would one day mean so much to so many people.

One thing that the documentary never loses sight of is how none of this happens without the kids. The families are central in about half of the scenes and get plenty of screen time talking about their struggles and the hope that THON brings them. Having mini-THONs explained by Kevin Rupp — who started a mini-THON at the middle school that his daughter Felicia attended before passing away — is far more powerful than any volunteer could do. The families are focused on more than any other group, even the Overall Committee, which really emphasizes why we dance.

It is also comforting to have so much focus put on the staff and researchers at the Hershey Medical Center. The work that they do is so incredible that you could make an entire feature length film just on music therapy.

The new Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital gets some screen time in its unfinished state which left me really hoping I get a special visit opportunity this year. Seeing the different kinds of state of the art equipment and methods of treatment touches on just how much of a difference ten million dollars can make.

The students that give up their THON weekend to spend it in Hershey with the kids that can’t make the trip due to their treatment schedule or vulnerability have found a special place in my heart. THON doesn’t just happen in the BJC and they prove that by going to the kids that can’t come here.

And of course, there could be no “Why We Dance” if there wasn’t a dance marathon. Plenty of time is devoted to THON weekend and all the emotions it brings. From mail call hour and hair donations to dancer struggles in the final hours of the weekend and the incredible stories during family hour, justice is certainly done to as much of THON as can ever be seen in a movie.

Pay special attention to the look on Barry Bram‘s face during the final tabulation — it’s priceless. Plus, who doesn’t love hearing Elaine Tanella scream “AND EIGHTY-THREE CENTS!!! WOOOOO!!!” The only way you can feel any better about THON than this documentary will make you feel is by getting involved with THON 2013.

Here are a couple other trailers to get you excited for the Thursday release:

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