Your Comprehensive Guide to THON
Despite the chilly and desolate beginning of spring semester, students across campus and activists across the globe are abuzz with the approaching excitement of THON weekend. For those already involved, there are many ways to describe the atmosphere of THON: inspiring, emotional, and incredible only beginning to cover it. However, there are many who are uninitiated, wondering “What exactly is THON, and how does it work?”
Whether you’re new to Penn State, unfamiliar with THON, or just need a good refresher, we have your comprehensive guide to the ins and outs of Penn State’s THON.
What is THON?
THON is the commonly-used nickname for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. This dance marathon, which is a year-long fundraising effort, culminates in a 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping event that takes place in our very own Bryce Jordan Center. Oftentimes, when you hear someone talking about THON, he or she is most likely referring to this weekend-long dance marathon, which caps the fundraising year and celebrates the accomplishments.
How did THON start?
The history of THON is varied and extensive, but it started at Penn State in 1973. Originally, it began as a dance competition — rather than a group effort — with a goal to raise money for a specific charity. Additionally, at its inception, it served as a way for the Panhellenic Council to reshape and reimagine its image.
At its humble beginning in 1973, THON involved 78 dancers, who spent 30 hours standing and dancing in the ballroom at the HUB. They ultimately raised $2,136. Since then, THON has grown exponentially in size and impact — last year’s THON lasted 46 hours and incorporated 707 dancers in total, raising a record $13,343,517.33 for the cure.
Who does THON help?
When it began, students involved in THON simply chose a charity each year that it felt deserved the funds raised. In 1973, its first year, THON donated its efforts toward an association devoted to children with special needs. The following years, money respectively was donated to the American Heart Association, the Easter Seals Society, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
However, the THON of 1977 was quite a special one: It began its crucial partnership with the Four Diamonds Fund. Four Diamonds, which is partnered with the Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, is devoted to conquering pediatric cancer in all its aspects: scientific research for a cure, financial support for the children and families affected by cancer, and hospital comfort and care for those diagnosed.
THON’s relationship with the Four Diamonds Fund is now its sole one — since 1977, every penny raised has gone directly to the Four Diamonds Fund to support the fight against pediatric cancer.
Why is THON so unique?
THON is special for a multitude of reasons and facets, of course, but the most prominent may be this: THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. It began as a result of inspired and motivated students, and each year has grown and developed, amassing an incredible amount of student volunteers and supporters. THON boasts over 15,000 student volunteers, and continues to increase in size and fundraising with each passing year.
What about this year’s THON?
This year, THON begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 20, and ends on Sunday, Feb. 22 at 4 p.m. The theme, “Empower the Dreamers,” will be incorporated throughout the weekend, and you can expect to see the logo of a child painting the moon decorating the BJC.
What is FTK?
For The Kids. This phrase is perhaps the most important one you’ll need to know for the entirety of THON weekend. It represents everything that THON does, the struggles that it might encounter, and the foundation of its efforts. It’s all FTK: For The Kids.
So what exactly happens during THON weekend?
With THON being one of the biggest weekends of the year at Penn State, if you’ve never been, it’s important to have an idea of what to expect. Here are a few important notes if you want to attend THON:
- Don’t sit. Seriously, it seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people try to secretly — or even blatantly — sit in the stands. Leaning on chair backs counts, too.
- Plan your visits accordingly. BJC will without a doubt reach capacity at several points throughout the weekend — I will try to note them below.
- Depending on how long you stay in the stands, or if you’re visiting any dancing friends, be very careful about revealing the time. Particularly in regards to dancers, the time and day should stay rather secretive (unless they definitely, positively want to know).
With this in mind, when you attend THON, you will be amid 15,000+ student volunteers and supporters, and there will be four major groups of people.
1. Four Diamonds Families
The children that are, in a certain essence, “adopted” by the Four Diamonds Fund will often be in attendance, accompanied by their families. These children are easily spotted, as they will be sprawled around the BJC floor, taking down dancers with water guns and causing a ruckus with their yo-yos and adorable faces. In addition, most Four Diamonds children and families are paired with student organizations, sororities, and fraternities — so you can often find small children in the spotlight of a circle of their dancers.
For each THON weekend, a capped number of “dancers” are on the floor of the BJC for the entire 46 hours. Not everyone involved in THON is able to dance. In fact, these dancers are divided into three categories: IFC/Panhellenic dancers, dancers for organizations, and independent dancers.
For dancers involved in sororities and fraternities, their opportunity on the floor is often decided by their involvement in THON fundraising and events throughout the year. Similarly, dancers in organizations are chosen in the same fashion — their involvement and dedication are often the basis for their allowance to dance.
Independent dancers follow a separate path: Any two people at Penn State can try to independently dance, raising money through canning, THONvelopes, or various dinners and fundraisers throughout the fall semester. With each set amount of money they raised, one ticket gets entered into a general lottery for all independent dancers — the more money you raise, the more chances you have to be drawn from the lottery. Finally, a little over two weeks before THON, they are notified if they will be dancing in the upcoming THON weekend.
Regardless of how they got onto the floor, the opportunity to dance in THON is highly desired and difficult to obtain. These will be the 700 or so people on the floor, interacting with the families and standing on their feet until the final total is revealed.
In order to ensure that THON runs smoothly and efficiently, it needs the guidance of several crucial committees. From regulating visitor safety, to facilitating the dancers’ food and refreshments, to providing donor and alumni tours throughout the BJC, there are 15 committees of captains and members that will be in attendance at THON. They wear specific color-coordinated shirts, so they are easily located should their assistance be needed. THON is comprised of the following committees:
COMM: Communications is responsible for general questions and discussion between volunteers, visitors, and anyone in attendance.
DAR: Donor and Alumni Relations builds relationships between the donors and THON itself, and provides tours to alumni and donors throughout the weekend.
DR: Previously known as Morale, Dancer Relations will be found on the floor, each volunteer paired alongside a dancer couple or group in order to provide emotional and physical support.
ENT: Entertainment is responsible for the planning and execution of musical and live events throughout the weekend.
FINANCE: Finance spends the weekend performing the crucial task of tracking all donations and working toward tallying the final total.
FR: Family Relations primarily focuses upon the experiences of the Four Diamonds children and families, committed to their well-being and enjoyment.
HOS: Hospitality is often found on the floor, providing all of the meals and refreshments to the dancer and families, as well as stocking and serving all food outlets.
MERCH: Merchandise organizes and sells THON gear and keepsakes throughout the weekend, manning the merchandise booths and assisting with purchases.
OPP: OPPerations is responsible for the logistical set-up, transformation, organization, cleanliness, and tear-down of THON weekend and the BJC.
PR: Public Relations is the voice of THON, and is concerned with the portrayal of THON to the local, statewide, and national public.
R&R (Event & Volunteer): Rules and Regulations ensures the safety of two primary facets of THON: the environment of the event itself, and the internal involvement of those involved, primarily dancers and volunteers.
SE: Special Events, having planned many events leading up to THON weekend, will be focused on the THON Museum and the THON History Tour.
SL: Supply Logistics keeps track of all in-kind donations made to THON, whether they be from small local business or larger corporations.
TECH: Technology is involved with all aspects of THON’s technological side — particularly the PASS System, which is responsible for attendance onto the BJC floor.
Finally, supporters for THON will be found in the stands of the BJC. Typically the stands are divided among organizations, sororities, and fraternities, and they will bring signs and gear to proudly proclaim their affiliations. However, anyone can come to watch THON weekend — the stands are a free-for-all, and all are welcome.
Standing for 46 hours non-stop can seem daunting and impossible — and it certainly is no easy task. However, throughout the weekend, there will be various events. Some of these events include supporters in the stands, or are limited to volunteers on the floor. Regardless, here are some highlights to expect:
- Pep Rally: This typically falls on Saturday evening, and it will fill the BJC to capacity. By far one of the most anticipated events, the pep rally features a special and always hilarious dance-off between many of Penn State’s athletic teams. (Hint: men’s swimming and men’s gymnastics are always ones to watch.)
- Mail Call: Normally occurring sometime early Sunday morning, all dancers on the floor will receive the letters and packages that their friends and families have sent. By this point, dancers are often incredibly tired and thus very emotional, which makes the event all the more meaningful. If you know someone dancing in this year’s THON and haven’t made them dancer mail, I strongly recommend you do that now. They will certainly appreciate it.
- Final Four: This refers to the final four hours of THON, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. In these last four hours, the dancers are struggling, the supporters are getting tired, and everyone in the BJC interlocks arms and sways as Four Diamonds children and families grace the stage and speak on the behalf of Four Diamonds and THON. These are the four hours that everyone has stayed awake for, and the time ends with emotional speeches, one final inspiring concert, and the reveal of THON’s total fundraising for the year. BJC will most certainly fill to capacity — but if you can get in, it is an incredible time for THON and for Penn State.
Can you explain THON a little more?
Although this has been a guide to approaching THON and understanding its place in the university and the world, THON is incredibly difficult to explain. It is an event, but it is also an experience. We stand for 46 hours in an attempt to understand the pain felt by children with pediatric cancer every single day, and by the end of the weekend, after seeing the smiles of Four Diamonds children and the happiness of their families, it is an experience impossible to encapsulate entirely. The atmosphere of the BJC from Friday to Sunday is vivacious, loud, colorful, and lends itself to a feeling of family within the Penn State community. As cliché as it may be, the saying holds true: You just have to be there. It’s not how THON sounds, or appears, or is described — it truly is how it feels.
With THON only two weeks away, be sure to take these next couple of weeks to rest up and prepare. If you’re dancing, you don’t need luck — you’re gonna kill it! If you’re on a committee, have a great time and enjoy your floor shifts. If you’re supporting, rock those stands like it’s your job. And if you’re brand new to THON, or want to attend just to check it out, I highly encourage it. With this foundational information and a renewed view of THON, let’s break some records and make this the best year yet.
Photo: Bobby Chen/Onward State