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The 48th annual Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM) took place this weekend. The annual fundraiser, affectionately referred to as “DM” by the dance marathon team, is a charitable event known well throughout the Northwestern campus and its far-flung community of alumni. Not even severe weather late Saturday evening put a damper on the event’s success.
After the 30-hour-long event closed, NUDM leaders announced impressive results: $580,778 raised from 4,680 unique donations, many thousands of snacks and gallons of water consumed, nearly 1,000 sleep-deprived but aerobically fit students and too many meetings and hours of meetings to count, but each one was for a good cause.
The excitement leading up to the 7 p.m. Friday start was palpable. The beat of the music could be felt in the parking lot, lights shone around and inside the tent and students bustled around taking care of last-minute details. DM team members wore vibrantly colored T-shirts to identify specific responsibilities, the smell of cold air outside contrasted with the musky heat of the tent and Gatorade, water and unlimited snacks and meals suggested refreshment to come. There was relief and joy of finally, after two years of virtual marathons in which students danced alone in dorm rooms, being allowed to dance with other people. The students cheered.
The tent was tingling. And then it started. DJ Ron played music throughout the 30-hour event. Cady DeCamara and Dan Birmingham, Executive Co-Chairs, greeted the crowd and introduced representatives from the two beneficiary organizations. One is Chicago Youth Programs (CYP), which strives to “improve the life opportunities and health of youth in low-income neighborhoods, primarily on the south and west sides of Chicago, through long-term academic, emotional and mental support,” according to its website. Melody Brooks, CYP’s External Engagement and Events Manager, stepped onstage to acknowledge DM’s generosity and thank the dancers.
Brooks said she had completed the CYP application twice before being accepted the third time. CYP will use the Dance Marathon donation to strengthen existing mental health resources for families, expand the organization’s work geographically and strengthen their scholarship endowment.
The Evanston Community Foundation (ECF) was a designated secondary beneficiary for the 25th year in a row. ECF President and CEO Sol Anderson stepped onstage to thank the DM community and wish the dancers luck. ECF will apply this year’s DM funds to the organization’s Now! Fund, the “unrestricted annual fund that supports operations and grantmaking,” according to Anderson.
Next, emcees Shira Hirsch and George Javitch came bounding out to more applause, ready “to keep the dancer population excited for the entire year and the 30 hours!” Getting onstage is the culmination of a year’s worth of skits, funny costumes, trivia contests and other activities designed to engage the dancers and get them psyched to dance for 30 hours straight.
They reminded the dancers of the rules: masks must stay on, dancers had to be escorted to the restroom by someone from the security team (to ensure no snoozing) and there was no leaving early without an approved “early leave” form. They pointed out the three clearly identified emergency exits and started to dance as the crowd followed suit.
The visible dedication and leadership of Hirsch and Javitch mirrored the commitment and work ethic of the other committee co-chairs. The DM website identifies 11 committees plus the two Executive Co-Chairs. Each committee is staffed with 10 to 20 student volunteers who work throughout the year to fulfill their committee’s obligations. The Executive Committee has 21 members.
Brent Turner, Executive Director of Campus Life, said he begins meeting with the Executive Co-Chairs every week a year before the actual marathon occurs. The Executive Co-Chairs represent the 150 students working to make DM happen, in addition to the 900 registered dancers. Turner’s colleague, Tracey Gibson-Jackson, Director of Student Organizations and Activities, also works closely with DM teams throughout the year and is on site throughout the entire marathon.
The intense planning around DM is the result of years of refinement. There is a 48-second time-lapse video of the tent and dance floor being constructed by Northwestern’s capable grounds crew. Teams of students set up lights around and above the dance floor, the livestream hookup and screen, and speakers for the music. There is a stage in the front for the emcees and a raised platform in the back for the DJ and technical crew. A table on one side holds numbered spaces for students to leave their water bottles when they step out to use the restroom. A snack booth holds court on the north side of the tent. Students with experience as Emergency Medical Technicians are on call in the back, as is an ambulance outside the tent.
More than one person the RoundTable spoke with described DM as “a well-oiled machine.” DM is divided into 10 blocks of three hours. Each block is scheduled with specific music, musical performances by students, announcements and snacks. Nothing is left to chance. Donations pour in from local restaurants and supermarkets to keep the dancers hydrated and nourished. In addition to snacks throughout the entire marathon, dancers are provided three full meals on Saturday before the finale at 1 a.m. Sunday.
At the 20-hour mark, about 50 seniors in the tent were wearing purple T-shirts emblazoned with “120 HOURS LATER,” identifying them as NUDM volunteers for all four years at Northwestern. This highly coveted designation speaks to their commitment to Northwestern and fundraising for charitable organizations, and those seniors are honored in the spring with a dinner at Northwestern President Morty Schapiro’s home. Schapiro stopped by around 5 p.m. to cheer on the dancers, this being his final NUDM as president of the university.
This year, the DM team had to deal with several new factors. DM started as a fundraiser organized around Greek life on campus, but currently Greek life is trending downward at NU and at least three sororities have disbanded. There is a new team structure in place: dancers are assigned to one of four teams (red, yellow, blue, green) for fundraising, instead of forming their own smaller fundraising teams.
Perhaps the biggest difference, according to Samara Lipman, Co-Chair of the Marketing and Media Committee, is that three-quarters of the student body have not experienced DM “in the tent” due to the pandemic.
“They haven’t been there when the final fundraising total is announced, when the checks are presented to the representatives from the beneficiaries, and when the balloons drop at 1 a.m.,” she observed. Lipman said this is a year of transition, and while there may be fewer dancers in the tent and may be less money raised compared to previous years, “it doesn’t diminish what we’re doing here today.”
About 90 minutes before the end of DM, the livestream abruptly stopped. Lipman confirmed that the team had enacted their severe weather contingency plans due to high winds. Everyone was asked to move into the Norris building and the marathon continued, “finishing the night off strong. Everyone is safe,” she texted shortly after midnight.
Lipman spoke warmly of the friendships she has made and what she has learned by being a part of DM for four years. Last year, she and a guy she didn’t know well, a senior, were separately interested in being emcees, but neither had a partner to apply for the position. The executive board put them together. Now they talk every week even though he lives in Denver and they haven’t seen one another in a year. “You spent so much time with these people, and they really are seeing you at your most genuine self,” she said.
Don Althschuler, one of the original Alpha Tau Omega fraternity members who conceived the first NUDM back in 1975, said in an email, “Of all the memories that I cherish from my days in Evanston, the Dance Marathon is what I am most proud of.”
At 1 a.m., the balloons dropped, checks were presented, the executive co-chairs were celebrated, and the cheering was nonstop. This year’s NUDM was one for the books, and the mantle gets passed to next year’s team.