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A Brief History Of The THON Line Dance

There are times when Penn State alumna Sharon Harnett is driving and McFadden and White’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” comes on the radio. It takes her back to a stage in mid-February and an entire venue following her every move.

For Heather Grace Thomas, maybe it’s the Lion King Trap Remix.

For Julia Magowan, maybe it’s Icona Pop’s “All Night.”

For Juliet Garrigan, we’ll find out what that song is later tonight.

Whether they represented committees called Morale or Dancer Relations, all of these Penn Staters are united in their shared involvement as being a former line dance leader.

“The cool thing of a song is you really associate it with something in your history like junior high or prom, and it takes you back,” Harnett, the 1985 dance leader, said. “I still hear this song and still think of leading the line dance.”

Harnett wasn’t the first line dancer leader, but she was among the ones who helped made it an annual, beloved institution at THON. According to some reports, the first line dance debuted in 1976, but not much is written anywhere about its exact origins. It took some time before it became the well-known hourly staple of THON weekend — the line dance was never even mentioned until 1988 in Daily Collegian archives.

For the first two decades or so, the line dance was primarily one song that was carefully selected and choreographed by Morale captains. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that the line dance began to feature actual lyrics summarizing the previous year, according to Collegian archives.

Interestingly, John Travolta was a popular reference in the original lyrics each year, because he always “contributes dance moves every year, so he finds his way into the line dances” Morale captain Jennifer Wolford told the Collegian’s Patricia Tisak.

By 2002, the song had reached its current form:

Although there wasn’t a yearlong summary in 1985, the line dance was still something that stuck with dancers and volunteers over time — as evidenced by Harnett’s strong recollection of her year’s song and her and her friends’ ability to spout off songs from previous years (After our interview, she emailed me twice within 24 hours with additional songs that other former dancers and volunteers had told her.).

Kool and the Gang’s “Let’s Go Dancing” in 1984. Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” in 1983. Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away” in 1980. The BeeGees in 1979.

Harnett said she even remembers how when previous line dances would be played, many students would get up and do them from memory — very similar to how nostalgic seniors will fondly shout “Ignite! Electrify!” on Sunday afternoon.

In recent years, Harnett has begun returning to THON to support some of her sorority sisters’ children who are dancing for 46 hours. Although the event is now two hours shorter than when she was in school, after not attending THON for quite some time, Harnett was taken aback by its scale. For one, it’s moved from the humble White Building to the massive Bryce Jordan Center (with a pitstop at Rec Hall in between).

“The line dance is one of the things that really stood out to me when I started coming back,” she said. “And how intricate it is now. It’s almost like a synopsis of the year with the soundbites and blurbs about current events. It’s definitely more intricate and much longer than what ours were.”

When Harnett led the line dance, she and another overall taught it to the crowd with one holding a handheld microphone explaining the moves and the other demonstrating. Now, the line dance leader (officially titled the dancer wellness captain) stands in front of 19 other DR captains to lead it. Instead of holding a microphone, the leader wears a headset, allowing her to dance, sing, and talk freely.

Although a lot has changed with THON and the line dance over the last 35 years, plenty of things remain the same at the routine’s core. Harnett and Garrigan, the 2020 line dance leader, both recalled similar processes of picking the music for their respective versions.

“We were looking for song that grabbed us and that represented the era and that year,” Harnett said. She said she and the other overalls (what directors used to be known as) would sit in their HUB office all year with the radio on, waiting for the right song to come on.

In 2020, each Dancer Relations captain sends five songs to Garrigan each week during the fall semester before she picks a few for them all to vote on at their weekly meeting. When they have a strong list of candidates to serve as the background song for that year’s dance, they’ll get into what Garrigan called “deep discussions about a song’s feel.”

While this process is a bit more organized, the what they’re looking for remains the same: something that will energize and rally the dancers.

Similarly, the purpose of the line dance remains the same — whether it’s to an ’80s pop song or Mason Ramsey yodeling.

“Ours was more of a morale booster,” Harnett said. “You tried to play it every hour or so or maybe even a bit more during the early-morning hours. when that song came on, everyone got up and lined up to do it.”

“My biggest role is to get people up and moving and bring the energy back,” Garrigan said. “I think that’s part of the line dance is reminding people to move. The fun little lyrics we put in there and dance breaks just bring the energy back into the BJC. My No. 1 priority is on the dancers and we try to keep that in mind when making this line dance — just to make sure they’re moving, stretching, getting all they can out of these five minutes.”

All these years later, the line dance staying true to its original roots shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, line dancers take quite a bit of pride in their lineage and shared bond that has transcended committee names, location changes, or fundraising restrictions.

“People like Julia Magowan, Gina DeFrancesco, and Heather Grace Thomas were such huge role models to me and they still are,” Garrigan said before this THON weekend. “So it was more about the person and they made other people feel rather than just the thing they were doing on stage. From working with them closely, it’s been something that’s always been a dream of mine.”

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected] All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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