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In 1975 Gerald Ford was president, a gallon of gas cost 57 cents and full-year tuition and board at Northwestern University was $3,500. It was also the first year of NU’s Dance Marathon and, amazingly, since the organizers had never staged a major fundraiser, they netted more than $9,000.
Since Mr. Ford there have been six U.S. presidents, the current average gasoline price in the Chicago area is around $3.50 a gallon and the University’s tuition and board now exceeds $63,000. But one thing has not changed: Dance Marathon is still going strong. NUDM, as it is called, has raised more than $14 million since the first dancers hit the floor at Blomquist Gymnasium on Feb. 28, 1975.
This year, to mark the 40th annual marathon, student organizers expect to raise more than $1 million to benefit the 2014 charity of choice, Team Joseph, which supports the fight against Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a form of the disease that affects young boys. And for the 17th straight year, 10 percent of the proceeds will go to the Evanston Community Foundation, thus benefitting local not-for-profits.
The Northwestern Dance Marathon bills itself as one of the most successful student fundraising efforts in the world. For its efforts, NUDM was named the nation’s “most influential college organization” in 2011 by StayClassy, an online fundraising organization.
“But the legacy is far greater,” said Northwestern senior David Harris, NUDM’s 2014 public relations co-chair. “We change the course of the lives of families we touch by increasing awareness of causes, sponsoring life-saving research and equipment and providing a year’s worth of joyful memories.”
The scope of Dance Marathon is impressive. More than 300 students work year-round to promote awareness, raise money and select the charity. Activities leading up to the Dance Marathon, which this year runs from 7 p.m. on March 7 to 1 a.m. on March 9 at the Norris Student Center, include a scavenger hunt, “Top Chef” competition, Battle of the Bands, Battle of the DJs, weekly trivia contests, a holiday party and a Hero Party with Team Joseph families. There are also fundraising events with NU wrestlers, swimmers, and basketball and tennis players.
A number of special fundraising events are also scheduled during the marathon weekend, including a children’s carnival and 5K race along the lakefront.
More than a thousand dancers are expected to take part, and each is required to raise at least $400. Other individual and corporate contributions make up the rest of the proceeds.
“Dance Marathon is one of the highlights of our year,” said Burgwell Howard, the college’s assistant vice president for student engagement. “It involves a large part of the student body as participants, fundraisers, supporters and spectators.” The event is student run, Mr. Howard explained, though it gets “lots of institutional support.”
Dance marathons were popular during the Great Depression. The 1969 movie “They Shoot Horses Don’t They,” about one such marathon, is credited with popularizing the idea on college campuses as a way to rally student spirit and raise funds for charity.
Organizers of a 1974 marathon at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana encouraged local schools to send contingents, and one of the participants was Northwestern sophomore Jan Jacobowitz, today a law professor at University of Miami. “When I came back to Evanston, I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t Northwestern have one of its own?’” She mentioned the idea to a fellow member of NU’s Associated Student Government, Tim Rivelli. Mr. Rivelli, today a Chicago attorney, was then a sophomore and member of Alpha Tau Omega. When Mr. Rivelli broached the idea to his fraternity brothers, they decided to take it on.
The first year there were only 21 couples registered, 15 of whom made it through all 52 hours. “Things were a lot different then,” said Bill Buell, a Kentucky marketing executive who was one of the original organizers. “We didn’t have social networking. We cranked out promotional materials on a mimeo machine.”
Roy Elvove, now a New York public relations VP, was an ATO classmate of Mr. Buell’s. “We were looking for a community event to stage on campus, so we agreed to do it. But we didn’t have a blueprint. We were kind of making it up as we went along,” he recalled. “There were some dark moments when we wondered, is this going to work.”
To help it succeed, the ATO organizers engaged a number of well-known entertainers to perform live, including Eddie Boy Band, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Bill Quateman.
Evanston Mayor Edgar Vanneman designated Feb. 24-March 2 as “Dance to Give Them a Chance Week.”
In the end, NU dancers raised almost $10,000 for the Epilepsy Foundation of America and the National Association for Retarded Citizens (today known as The Arc).
“My claim to fame was swallowing a goldfish for every thousand dollars we raised,” said Don Altschuler, a Connecticut attorney who was another ATO fraternity brother involved in the inaugural marathon. “We were trying to replicate some of the stunts from the dance marathon craze of the ’30s.”
Asked if goldfish-swallowing would be repeated this year, NU’s Mr. Howard laughed and replied emphatically, “No, no! These days students are much more into power bars and sports drinks.”
As for the marathon’s legacy, Ms. Jacobowitz reflected back on what she started: “I’m very proud of what we did in 1975. And I’m very proud of what the students are doing today.”
Anyone wishing to check the schedule, make a donation or stream the Dance Marathon live may visit www.nudm.org.