It’s about 6:30 p.m. on a chilly Friday in February at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center. There are sweeping blue and pink strobe lights. Multicolored beach balls are flying indiscriminately in every direction. A small boy is firing two squirt guns with wild abandon into the crowd.
Welcome to the 2015 Penn State Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
Since 1977, the 46-hour fundraising bonanza has generated $114 million in donations for the Four Diamonds Fund, a charity that benefits the approximately 600 young patients receiving treatment for cancer at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. The donations raised through Thon go toward providing families with financial, medical and specialty care assistance, as well as fund the ongoing research toward finding a cure.
“Thon has impacted what we are able to do and how we’re able to take care of children,” said Four Diamonds Director Suzanne Graney.
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She addressed the crowd gathered at the Bryce Jordan Center alongside Four Diamonds co-founder Charles Millard, invoking this year’s Thon theme of “Empowering the Dreamers.”
Below the stage, 807 student dancers were enjoying “the sit” — the last time they’ll be allowed off their feet until 4 p.m. Sunday. Throughout the year, students engage in canning drives and other fundraising activities to raise money for Four Diamonds in order to be entered into a lottery to dance at Thon. The more money they raise, they more raffle tickets that are submitted in their name.
Seniors Kelly Deane and Rachel Casciano raised $18,000, generating a total of 26 raffle tickets in their favor and guaranteeing them a spot on the dance floor.
“I never thought we were going to raise that much. It was way past our goal, which was awesome,” said Deane.
She and Casciano have been friends since they were 8 years old and played soccer together in Reading. Two years ago, Casciano won a battle against thyroid cancer, and her presence at Thon is as much about standing up to the disease as it is standing up to dance.
“For me, it’s like I’m beating it,” said Casciano.
At 6 p.m. all of the dancers on the floor stand and Thon officially begins, an occasion marked by a simultaneous explosion of cheers, selfies and, of course, dancing.
Senior Caity Jozwiak watched the action on the floor with her Gamma Phi Beta sisters up in the bleachers. The Gamma Phi Betas interact with the Four Diamonds kids regularly throughout the year, celebrating birthdays, crafting in the summers and holding spaghetti dinners with the families.
Jozwiak has been a consistent presence at Thon since she arrived at Penn State as a freshman and, aside from two short breaks, is intent on savoring every last moment of these final 46 hours.
“It’s bittersweet. I know I’ll be donating next year and hopefully I’ll come visit but that just makes it all the more important to be here this year,” said Jozwiak.
Down on the stage, dance relations captains guided the crowd through the lyrics and moves to the new line dance, which incorporated references to events from the past year ranging from Derek Jeter’s retirement from the New York Yankees to the newfound availability of the sitcom “Friends” on Netflix.
One of the dance groups following along on the floor was sporting fuzzy pink hats in a nod to Victoria Smith, a seventh-grader at Mount Nittany Middle School. Victoria was 3 years old when she was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia in December 2005. Every year, dancers from Atlas For the Kids, a special interest group created specifically for Thon, wear their pink hats as a tribute to her favorite color as they raise money for Four Diamonds.
“She’s an only child biologically, but she has hundreds of brothers and sisters through Atlas,” said Victoria’s mother, Stephanie Smith. She and her husband, Matt, have called State College home their entire lives.
The Smiths arrived at Thon late Friday evening, but plan to return again on Sunday when the dancers will be concluding 46 hours on their feet. Matt Smith believes Victoria’s presence may help bolster their remaining energy.
“I think its an adrenaline rush for them to see her,” said Smith.