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Four Decades, For The Kids: A Look Into THON’s History

In February of 1992, during its twentieth anniversary, THON weekend was fully underway.

THON was a younger philanthropy at that time, residing in White Building and lasting 48 hours, and John Ferenchak, the Overall Chair in 1992, reminisces on the feeling in White on that cold Sunday evening. “THON was growing up,” Ferenchak said. In an era lacking wifi and Twitter, one that precluded the instantaneity of the internet and social media, the message of THON was spread by colorful flyers, newspaper ads, and sheer word of mouth. “Through our family-motivated branding and storytelling efforts,” Ferenchak explained, “we hoped that our strategy would pay off with wider participation, leading to greater fundraising streams and a higher overall total.”

That evening, as each dancer and attendee packed the gym in anticipation, Ferenchak took the stage and announced the total, “One million——” and the rest was lost in the roar of the crowd. Twenty years after its inception, for the first time in its history, THON had surpassed the million dollar mark. “We have made history!” Ferenchak yelled over the cheers. As he looked back on the events of that weekend, he noted, “That night, we left a legacy, a new goal to strive for.”

Having raised over $13 million in last year’s THON, it can be humbling to fathom that raising over $1 million was a new and exciting accomplishment. Yet THON, for all of its current success and inspirational endeavors, came into being with a quiet, subdued beginning.

***

Bill Lear, the Interfraternity Council President, was THON’s unintentional and unassuming founder. Searching for a way to reshape the image of the Panhellenic society at Penn State, Lear thought of a dance competition with a fundraising component. Dancer couples would compete against one another, and the pair that raised the most money and stayed on its feet the longest would win a monetary prize. Lear told THON Magazine’s 2005 issue that he wanted to invite “some fun and positive feelings” while raising money for a worthy cause.

For only a $10 registration fee, 39 couples entered the first THON in 1973, then referred to as simply the “Dance Marathon.” In a world before pledges, canning, and THONvelopes, dancers raised money only during the marathon itself, placing donation cans outside the HUB Ballroom. This way, spectators would be able to donate to their favorite couple.

Lear had been a bit apprehensive concerning the marathon’s ability to fundraise. Lear and the Dance Marathon committee had chosen as their first benefactor the Sheltered Workshop for Retarded Children of Butler County, an organization dedicated to support of young individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Lear told his neighbor, who was involved with the organization, to expect as little as $20 from the dance marathon. In THON’s infancy, Lear wasn’t quite sure what to expect or how to predict its outcome. Instead, after 30 hours of nonstop dancing and fundraising, Dance Marathon had raised over $2,000 for the children of Butler County — and had unknowingly kickstarted the largest student-run philanthropy across the globe.

After the surprise success of 1973, Dance Marathon became a recurring instance, falling in January or February of each year. A year after its start, the rules and monitoring of the event became much more stabilized and regulated.

Dancers in 1974
Dancers take different approaches in the marathon of 1974. (Photo: Penn State Special Collections Library)

In a bold move, the length of Dance Marathon jumped from 30 hours to 48 hours; from 7 p.m. on Friday to 7 p.m. on Sunday, dancers would occupy the ballroom of the HUB. And they were precisely that — dancers. Dancing officials manned the floor, ensuring that each couple not only remained on its feet, but continued to dance along with the music. In fact, each dancer pair occupied a four-foot diameter circle within which to move around and keep rhythm.

In addition, because THON’s roots were in a dance competition, it employed scoring rules. For every dollar earned, the dancer couple received one point. Donations could be made in any of the four cans that each couple had, and these cans could be signed out for solicitation throughout State College during the marathon. However, for all the points earned by fundraising, points were also docked for failing to comply with dancing regulations, and there were even penalties for taking bathroom breaks. The winners of the dance marathon were determined based on net point earnings at the end of the 48 hours.

At the end of Dance Marathon’s second year, dancers had raised over $10,000 for the American Heart Association, and the top three winning couples received monetary prizes. This Dance Marathon also witnessed the first pairing of a fraternity and a sorority — Kappa Delta Rho and Delta Delta Delta began a tradition of Panhellenic collaboration that exists even today.

Alternating annually between various charities and embellished by the atmosphere of competition, the initial efforts of Dance Marathon were quite different from what exists today. The features that are so entirely characteristic of Dance Marathon — the line dance, Slides of Strength, FTK —  slowly but steadily came together, year by year, eventually coalescing into the vibrant and unique weekend that comprises Penn State’s passion.

In 1976, Dance Marathon announced its first theme, “Dance For Those Who Can’t.” The same year brought forth the time-honored tradition of the line dance. However, it was the following year that would bring about the greatest change of THON’s illustrious history.

Four Diamonds Agreement
The Four Diamonds Fund becomes the official and sole beneficiary of THON. (Photo: Penn State Special Collections Library)

The Four Diamonds Fund, a fledgling charity at the heart of the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, was chosen as the recipient of Dance Marathon’s fundraising efforts in 1977. Founded in 1972, the fund honors Christopher Millard, a 14-year-old who lost his battle with cancer after three years of strength and determination. His parents, Charles and Irma, wanted to provide support to others battling pediatric cancer.

Dance Marathon 1977 was the first one to contribute to the cause of the Four Diamonds Fund, and it also ceased the alternation of beneficiaries from year to year. The university became attached solely to the Four Diamonds Fund, and to this day, all of the money raised each year goes directly to help the Four Diamonds children and families.

[pullquote]It is in this union of Dance Marathon and Four Diamonds that the potential for longevity and success seemed to find its basis: Dancers were looking for an inspiration to latch on to, and the Four Diamonds families became quickly and utterly inseparable from the marathon.[/pullquote]

In 1978, a rather significant event caused Dance Marathon’s relationship with the Four Diamonds Fund to strengthen. After Dance Marathon had ended and a record $52,800 was raised, a group of students were transporting the donation check to the Hershey Medical Center. However, the students were involved in a car accident, and one student, Kevin Steinberg, lost his life. As the Interfraternity Council Vice President, Steinberg was a dedicated participant in Dance Marathon, and though this event was deeply unfortunate, it also worked to further solidify the growing bond between Penn State and Four Diamonds. In his honor, the Kevin Steinberg Award is granted each year to one THON supporter as a recognition of his or her services for THON and Four Diamonds.

***

As Dance Marathon began to pick up traction among the university and throughout the public sphere, the committees quickly realized that its current home did not have substantial capacity for its growing number of volunteers. Within only six years, the HUB Ballroom proved too small — so for Dance Marathon of 1979, dancers and supporters filled up White Building. The bigger area allowed for more dancers and spectators, and for 20 years, White would be occupied by multicolored committee members, sleepy and ecstatic dancers, and energetic Four Diamonds kids.

During that chunk of time, while THON was still in the early stages of finding its footing, the levels of involvement and events spanned a breadth of candidness and charm. In terms of sponsorship, Coors Brewing Company was actually quite involved with the philanthropy. During the marathon in 1979, the sorority Gamma Phi Beta set up an impromptu kissing booth in the corner of the dance floor, a last-ditch effort to raise more money for its dancers. A “New Year’s Eve Party” was held on the Saturday of Dance Marathon weekend in 1980, with activities ranging from a jitterbug dancing contest to the crowning of a marathon king and queen.

These sorts of sporadic quirks have since passed by the wayside with the progression and maturing of THON, but dancers and supporters have never failed to find creative avenues for awareness, fundraising, and involvement.

Coors Light sponsorship
Dancers lean on one another during Dance Marathon — with Coors Light supporting them. (Photo: Penn State Special Collections Library)

John W. Oswald, the 16th president of Penn State, visited Dance Marathon for the first time in 1981. As the face of Penn State, his presence expressed a university-wide support. Also, by this point, there were no longer points docked for any and all breaks taken by dancers. A concern for the safety and health of dancer couples took precedence, and they were now granted three-minute breaks every eight hours. Each return from a break gave way to a miniature Slides of Strength — on the way back to the floor, dancers could slide down a baby powder-covered mat and receive a few mere seconds of relief and massaging.

The 10th anniversary of Dance Marathon fell in 1982, and John Cappelletti was the speaker at the Road to THON Celebration. Cappelletti, a previous Penn State football player and winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1973, spoke about losing his younger brother to leukemia 10 years earlier. He would be the first in a line of notable Road to THON speakers, including Miss America 1988 at the celebration in 1989. To this day, the Road to THON Celebration is a highly anticipated tradition for volunteers and supporters, taking place several weeks before THON weekend and recognizing the critical preemptive work completed for the event.

A milestone was reached in 1983: Dance Marathon fundraising broke six figures, totaling $131,182 For The Kids. In 11 years, the humble aspirations of the IFC President had grown into something unforeseeable and impressive, and the reach of Dance Marathon began its inevitable sweep across the nation. The same year, the Overall Committee was approached by the Children’s Miracle Network, requesting permission to help other schools set up similar fundraising programs.

Additionally, the cost of dancers to enter the marathon was continually increasing. With an increasing interest in involvement, potential dancer couples were required to submit a pledge of at least $4 per hour to enter the marathon — that’s a promised $192 throughout the course of the weekend. This was a steep increase from Dance Marathon a decade before, which necessitated a small $15 entry fee per couple. This entry fee has only continued to escalate, as every year has included a larger onslaught of potential dancers.

Jenneth Layaou, a Penn State graduate, had the opportunity to dance not only once, but twice. During 1985 and ’86, Layaou and her partners danced through the weekend — but primarily on their own. “We didn’t have the structure and support for dancers that THON has now,” Layaou said. “Preparation for the event was less of a production, and so, for the first year, I was less prepared.”

[pullquote]”Both years were full of activities and excitement that kept you going… until early Sunday morning. That was the hardest,” Layaou said. “By Sunday afternoon, the excitement would return, knowing that you were helping others, knowing that your family was going to see you complete the dance — it was a natural high.”[/pullquote]

Unlike the THON weekends that occur today, there were no moralers —  now called Dancer Relations Committee Members — assigned directly to dancers. Instead, there were teams of moralers that surveyed the floor and helped out where needed. Because Layaou wasn’t involved with a Four Diamonds family, Dance Marathon consisted of her dance partners, the toys around the floor (such as hula hoops and Frisbees), and interaction with various Four Diamonds children and other dancers.

During her Dance Marathon in 1985, she distinctly remembered a special performance on Sunday afternoon. “Otis Day and the Knights played at the end,” Layaou said. “That was awesome to dance to his performance of ‘Shout.'”

Otis Day and the Knights was the fictional band from “Animal House,” best known for its renditions of “Shout” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong,” and the band ended up touring as a real-life band — and just happened to make a pit stop at the 1985 Dance Marathon.

Regardless of the difficulties throughout the weekend, Layaou was still honored to have been involved. “I feel privileged and proud to have had the opportunity to participate in THON in 1985 and 1986,” she said. “Since I participated, I have seen THON grow and organize, yet as big as it has become, never far from the emotion and mission of the THON that I experienced.”

***

Finally, in 1987, Dance Marathon grew into the name that is now most familiar and loved: THON. Although it is simply a shorter, modified version of the word “marathon,” the name “THON” seems to encapsulate every facet of its being. Used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective, THON sums up the year-long efforts and inspiration to dance in four tiny letters.

Also in 1987, onlookers began to investigate the nature of dancers and their states of being throughout THON weekend. Ken Shaffer, a Penn State graduate and someone who had twice danced in THON, returned to the event with a fresh set of eyes. A medical student of Johns Hopkins University at the time, he and three other colleagues used the intense and unique atmosphere of THON to study the effects of sleep deprivation.

[pullquote]“The most common hallucinations among sleep-deprived dancers are mirror images of people, mirrors coming up from the floor, and two-dimensional images of people.”[/pullquote]

According to the 2002 issue of THON Magazine, Shaffer asked similar questions that are heard at hospital visits, such as, “What is today’s date?” or, “Where are you from?” He and his colleagues questioned dancers throughout the weekend, and found that the majority of dancers had become quite disillusioned as time passed, including difficulty remembering objects, envisioning objects that weren’t there, and hearing names being called.

However, such sleep deprivation — although still present in those that dance today — may have been a side effect of the inner-workings of THON at the time. Quickly growing and gaining speed, THON was beginning to soar out of proportions in regards to the ratio of dancers to volunteers. In 1987, THON boasted 544 dancers, but only seven committees; compare this to last year’s 700 dancers, and 15 total committees. In fact, during this time, the ratio of moralers to dancers was roughly one to 40 — a ratio that would be unheard of in today’s THON. It would take a little more time for THON’s procedures and preparations to truly catch up with its progress and involvement.

Another notable name change occurred in 1990: Penn State Dance Marathon became the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, providing necessary recognition to the organization that had a huge helping hand in the beginning stages of THON.

After THON hit the million dollar mark in 1992, another landmark in THON’s professional history occurred in 1995, with the first female Overall Chair, Stacy Bingler — although to her, the achievement wasn’t quite so impressive. “I remember at the time not thinking it really would be any big deal,” Bingler explained. “I really thought it shouldn’t be a big deal whether the chair was a woman or a man, as long as the person they chose would be the person who would do the best job. I do not think people on campus in 1995 really thought much about it. At least I didn’t notice it if they did.”

[pullquote]”I remember a major focus for our committee that year was also keeping sight of what the event was about: the kids and families. We wanted the funds raised to continue to grow but didn’t want people to lose sight of the reason why we were doing what we were doing.”[/pullquote]

Bingler’s year with THON focused on fundraising and the Four Diamonds children, setting the tone for the event and attempt to compensate for its growing size. “I remember thinking that it was on the cusp of really turning into something big and we had to be prepared to support the growth,” Bingler said, speaking on the necessity of pledge books and a debate over moving to Rec Hall. (Ultimately, THON would remain in White Building, until eventually moving to Rec Hall in 1999.)

1995 Overall Committee before THON
The Overall Committee of 1995 prepares to kickoff THON weekend. (Photo: Stacy Bingler)

However, Bingler’s experience with THON wouldn’t end there. Bingler went on to dance in THON as an alumna — twice. As a member of the Dancer Marathon Alumni Interest Group, Bingler danced in 2000 with the Entertainment Overall Chair from 1995, and in 2013 with another DMAIG member. She has also run in the Hope Express three times, and served on the Four Diamonds Advisory Board.

Through all of her various involvements and years of support, for Bingler, THON has always remained the same. “THON really is pretty much the same now as it has always been — just on a grander scale,” Bingler said. “In 1995, I was in White Building. In 2000, I danced in Rec Hall. And in 2013, I danced in BJC, but the feeling or spirit of THON is essentially still the same.”

Bingler said that THON has been a lifelong love, and she has made eternal friends because of it. “I am very close to my committee,” she said, explaining how they are all coming back together for their 20th reunion at this year’s THON. “I danced with one of my committee members for our five year anniversary and everyone helped fundraise and came back to support us. They truly are some of my dearest and lifelong friends. When we get together, we jump right back in, and it seems like just yesterday that we were all working together on THON.”

She also keeps closely in touch with her Penn State organization’s THON child, Aubrey.

Stacy and Aubrey
Stacy and Aubrey at THON 1995, and the pair 18 years later, at THON 2013. (Photos: Stacy Bingler)

***

Just as Bingler could sense, THON only continued to grow, truly beginning to find its peak. At some point, THON lost its initial sense of competition and winning, and that atmosphere faded into one more married with community and group effort. Although organizations still enjoy trying to raise the most amount of money, the emphasis certainly landed itself closer to the loving, caring spirit that THON and Four Diamonds encourage.

In 1997, representatives from “CBS This Morning,” “Good Morning America,” and “USA Today” all attended THON, beginning to shed national and global light upon the student-run philanthropy that was shaking up the Eastern coastline.

In addition, THON began utilizing its standby lottery system as the number of dancers continued to grow. The same year, the entry fee for dancer couples had risen to $50, and couples had to submit pledges that totaled at least $10 per hour — essentially, a secured donation of $480. If there were any pair openings left over, they would be entered into the lottery system, and those picked would fill up the remaining capacity.

The THON of 1998 also hinted at a steady rise in fundraising, with the total coming in at over $2 million, doubling the astonishing $1 million raised only six years earlier. THON’s website gained intense traction, and live streaming allowed the weekend to be broadcast transnationally.

Finally, THON grew too big for its White Building shoes, and found a new — but rather temporary — home in Rec Hall, starting in 1999. This gym offered lockers as opposed to cubbies, as well as bigger bathrooms, and proved to be a much more accommodating space for the influx of dancers. To kickoff THON weekend, dancers ran from the Nittany Lion Inn and into Rec Hall, taking care to pass by the Lion Shrine for good luck along the way.

[pullquote]In 2001’s THON, 1,271 dancers, volunteers, and attendees broke the Guinness Book record for world’s largest hug.[/pullquote]

In 1999, THON pledged to donate $5 million, raised in the following five years, in order to create an endowed research scholarship for the Four Diamonds Fund — and successfully fulfilled the pledge in 2001, several years earlier than expected.

THON 2000
Captains take the stage at THON 2000. (Photo: Penn State Special Collections Library)

From this point, THON grew and changed into the THON that is ever-present today. THON 2002 led to the first THON 5K, as well as began the Color Wars between dancer teams. In 2003, dancer enrollment reached over 700 people — the number that acts as the foundation of dancers even today.

In 2005, THON was given the Simms Award for Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy, Ages 18-23, from the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

The next year, the webcast of THON was viewed by supporters in more than 30 countries across the globe, and the Hope Express ran its first race from Hershey Medical Center to Happy Valley. After having steadily climbed, the entry fee for dancer couples was at its highest yet — $1,500 per pair.

Finally, in an energetic jumble of colors, lights, and music, THON exploded into the Bryce Jordan Center in 2007, stretching to fill the capacity that was twice the size of Rec Hall’s space. This move, which led to THON’s current home, cemented the philanthropic event as a pivotal force that cannot be stopped. “Many Hearts, One Home” was the theme in 2007, and the phrase captures the ambience that pervades the entire BJC to this day.

***

Allison Engle has seen several facets of THON. As a Four Diamonds child, she was raised in the arms of dancer couples in Rec Hall. “I loved just standing in a huge circle and bouncing a ball around with the dancers,” Engle reminisced. “There was always something for us to do — hula hooping, finding new knick knacks in the dancers’ fannypacks, and soaring around on our dancers’ shoulders.”

[pullquote]”I’ve only ever wanted to go to Penn State because of the experiences I’ve had with THON,” Engle said.[/pullquote]

Even more, Engle also had the unique experience of dancing in THON herself. After visiting multiple THONs as a Four Diamonds child, she attended Penn State for her undergraduate degree in psychology, and danced as a junior in THON 2011. “I looked up to the dancers,” Engle said. “They were my heroes. Dancers were these invincible people that could conquer the world. The masks were taken off when I was introduced to all of the hard work that goes on ‘behind the scenes.’ My parents were aware of the struggles the dancers endured over the weekend, but as a child I never noticed. I was mind-blown when I was able to dance myself.”

DeeDee DeVore, also a Penn State graduate who danced in 2011, felt the same way. “I am so grateful that I got that chance,” DeVore said about the opportunity to dance. “I so badly wanted to dance and had been attending THON weekends since my freshmen year.”

With previous experience and a passion for THON, both Engle and DeVore found comfort in the people on the floor, in the stands, and all supporters in the area. THON, being at its peak in terms of capacity and involvement, was rife with activity and emotion.

“Together, everyone found a way to stay entertained and excited for the whole weekend,” DeVore said.

In an echo of that notion, Engle said, “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

THON_2012_Line_Dance
Photo: Onward State Staff

***

There have been pieces written on THON by Huffington Post, New York Times, and a feature on ABC News’s America Strong. THON has its own documentary, and Four Diamonds was granted a Disney film.

Yet somehow, given the growing coverage and accolades, throughout 42 years of expansion and involvement, THON has remained true to the heart of its cause: a student-run philanthropy, with countless individuals coming together to support people we don’t know and friends we have not yet met. The core of THON, even before 1977, was comprised of the four diamonds: courage, honesty, wisdom, and strength.

As we move forward from here, having witnessed the past and currently shaping the present, we know that the future of THON will be just as eminent and passionate as it always has been. THON may grow up, but it will still bring out the joyful, radiant child in each of us — and it is for our real Four Diamonds children that we are able to attend THON each year, give each ounce of energy, and work toward something brighter and bigger, together.

About the Author

Jessica Myers

Jess graduated in May 2015, with a Bachelor of Arts with honors in English, and with two minors in Latin and Art History. When she says she's "shippin' up to Boston," she's not just singing the song -- she's actually attending Northeastern University this fall to pursue her master's degree. You can follow her shenanigans at her site, http://www.jessicarmyers.com.

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