The Nittany Lion Is Dancing In THON, Suit And All
As THON weekend dawns upon us, dancers, committee members, and spectators all prepare to stand for 46 hours. This year, one Penn Stater will experience THON in an unprecedented way: as a dancer, and as the Nittany Lion. Senior Michael Valania, who has served as the Nittany Lion since Spring 2013, will spend this weekend dancing FTK, in addition to being a symbol of Penn State for everyone in attendance.
The Nittany Lion is, of course, an important part of THON. When it comes to the role of the Lion during THON weekend, there’s plenty of freedom for it to make the role its own. We’ve seen the Lion in the line dance, giving dancers piggy back rides, playing with the kids, and supporting the Executive Committee as it reveals the total. As an official symbol of the university, the Lion is about representing Penn State and showing the university’s support, Valania said. But more personally, it’s about being whatever THON needed him to be. Valania said he thinks the Lion can be a sort of “ultimate DRCMer,” supporting dancers who want pictures, or just cheering them on to keep their spirits up. This year, let’s all try to return the favor as Valania stands for 46 for the kids.
An Important Experience
THON means a lot to Valania’s Penn State experience.
“[THON is] one of my favorite things about Penn State, it might be my favorite thing,” he said. “Part of me is just so wowed by the organization itself and everything that it stands for. The cause is just incredible.”
“I love what it does for Penn State: the way it brings the community together, in terms of a university-wide thing, and the way it helps people grow and develop into the type of characters that Penn State can be proud of and that Penn State really prides itself on.”
As much as THON does for the Four Diamonds Fund, Valania said, it does a lot for Penn State’s community, too.
Valania knew about THON for a while before experiencing it himself, coming from a Penn State family and seeing his sister get involved. His freshman year, Valania joined Impact THON — now known as Impact — and began his THON experience on the organizational side of things. He spent 38 hours in the stands that year, and he specifically remembers thinking that it was the best weekend of his life. As a sophomore, Valania joined a morale committee, and helped make THON happen. Again, he remembers thinking that freshman year was great, but this was the best weekend of his life.
Valania’s junior year was his first THON as the Lion. And again, he was sure, this was the best weekend of his life. It was a “totally unique, incredible experience,” to participate in THON as the Lion, he said.
A Difficult Decision
When it came to deciding to dance as the Nittany Lion, it wasn’t an easy choice. As a rising senior, he seriously thought about dancing, but wasn’t sure he could do it. He used THON 2014 as a dry-run, spending as much time in the suit and in the BJC as he could. At the end of the weekend, he thought to himself, “[There’s] no way I’ll be able to dance next year.”
Being the Lion was just too exhausting.
It wasn’t until he spent this past summer on an overseas exchange with the Italian Navy that dancing in THON 2015 became a real possibility in his mind. He spent a month on a ship in Italy as a part of his ROTC training commitments, and heard only Italian for the entirety of those four weeks. His only break was listening to American music, and the only music he had on his phone was six songs: his THON 2014 playlist.
Every time he missed home or wanted to hear English, he’d put on that playlist in his tiny room on the ship, doing the line dance laying down on his bed — the only place there was room for the practice. It wasn’t until the end of his month abroad that it finally occurred to him: “I’m gonna find a way to do it. I’m gonna find a way to dance, I’m gonna make it happen.” After that month in Italy, he said to himself, “I have to.”
Valania’s experiences of THON leading up to 2015 have been important to him: He has a personal connection with a THON family through his organization, sees how THON is directed, and then through his time as the Lion he connects with families and meets their children while supporting dancers. It was a way to get on the “ground level” of what THON is and why we’re here, he said.
A Unique Experience
The opportunity to dance as the Lion is very special for Valania.
“My goal is that whenever I have my dancer number on in the suit, it’s the whole message that Penn State supports this,” he said. “It’s not just THON and the Four Diamonds that want to end cancer, it’s the whole community,” he said. “If I can do that as Michael Valania that’s great, but if I can do that as Penn State, I think that’s even better.”
Of course, dancing as the Lion is no easy feat. During THON 2014, Valania had “captain-like access:” he could sleep in the BJC, and he was very aware of the timeline and the logistical aspects of the weekend. As a dancer, Valania won’t be able to do that. He’ll be generally aware of the timeline to coordinate his participation in everything from the line dance to the total reveal, but THON volunteers will keep an eye on his energy levels and let him know when to take breaks from the suit.
His time in the suit will also be cut this year. Last year, he spent 22 total hours in the suit, but that will be trimmed down to about 15 or 16 hours this year. Valania is also a little worried about the energy that being the Lion during THON requires.
“Hopefully the Lion doesn’t fall asleep on the stage,” he said with a laugh.
‘One Step Closer’
As Valania looks forward to the weekend ahead, he has a long list of things he’s excited for, starting with his walk into the BJC. “I’m really looking forward to doing the human tunnel in the suit,” he said. “I’ll enter the BJC from Dancer Meeting No. 2 in the Lion suit. I feel like that’s just an awesome way to kick off the whole weekend.”
“I’m also really excited to stand up just as me, and not as the Lion,” he said. “Here’s all these people that I’ve made this journey with over these past couple years and as rewarding as it is to be the Lion, there are some memories you want to be able to share with other people.”
You see, you can’t talk when you’re in the Lion suit, and being able to speak with the people you stand with is certainly a part of the experience. Of course, the line dance will be a highlight, too.
“I love line dances,” he said. “It’s always fun to do as the Lion on stage, and even not on stage.”
Valania wants people to see him at THON in a new light, as a real person and not just a mascot. “‘Here’s the Lion, not as this far away symbol, but just as someone who’s trying to teach me the line dance,'” he hopes people say. “There’s something really real and genuine about that.”
And just like the rest of us, he can’t wait until the total reveal.
“Last year, I pretty much tackled RP [Ryan Patrick, Executive Director of THON 2014],” he said. “That was the highest I’ve ever jumped in my life, obviously I’m going to try to not do that to Megan [Renaut, Executive Director of THON 2015] this year.”
“It’s cool being on the stage for that moment, because you know everybody looking at the stage is looking for the numbers to come up,” he said. “For a lot of people, it’s this really terrifying moment of ‘did we beat last year’s total or not?’ But that’s not what it’s about.”
When you’re on the stage, he said, it feels different.
“It’s cool looking beyond the stage and looking out. It’s cool to take a moment and be relieved and think, ‘Okay, we’re one step closer.'”
The Lion has been there for us throughout our time at Penn State. This weekend, let’s be there for him, too.
Photo: Crystal Bryan