THON Then and Now

Photo by THON™, posted by @PennStateTHON on Facebook

This past weekend, Penn State students’ yearlong fundraising efforts culminated in the annual 46-hour dance marathon, fondly known as THON. This student-run philanthropy works to fund pediatric cancer research and to yield monetary and emotional support for families of children with cancer. In 1977, it selected Four Diamonds, an organization that helps cover medical expenses for pediatric cancer patients at Penn State Children’s Hospital, to be its beneficiary. Since then, THON has raised over a hundred million dollars “For The Kids” (FTK).

Photo by THON™, posted by @pennstatethon on Instagram

As expected, THON 2021 didn’t look quite the same as in previous years. Due to COVID-19, the event was held virtually for the first time in history – but that didn’t stop students from dancing and showing their support throughout THON weekend and in the months leading up to it. Collectively, students raised over $10.6 million ($10,638,078.62), redefining what it means to “go big or go home.”

But THON hasn’t always been as big as it is now. First established in 1973 with the title “Dance Marathon” (it later adopted “THON” in 1987), it was held in the HUB Ballroom, with a mere 78 dancers split into 39 pairs. Dr. Cris Guenter, one of those 78 people, shared her experience in an interview for a THON Alumni Reunion Series video on Facebook.

As Dr. Guenter explained, she was a freshman when THON debuted. She hadn’t heard of the event until her roommate signed her up to dance along with a boy she’d never met, thinking the two would do well since they were both athletic. At the time, THON was a 30-hour-long competition, where participants had to dance nonstop for as long as possible with no breaks. The couple that brought in the most money and danced the longest was deemed the winner.

That year, donations were only accepted during the marathon’s 30 hours. The event brought in about $2,000 for a sheltered workshop for children in Butler, PA, which was the beneficiary at the time. After seeing how successful it was, students decided to make it an annual affair. It wasn’t until 1979 that the competitive element was eliminated, shifting to encouraging every dancer to stand the whole time.

Photo by THON™, posted by @pennstatethon on Instagram

Since the dance marathon’s 1973 premiere, its venue has been changed three times, and its length twice. It moved to the White Building in 1979, to Rec Hall in 1999, and finally to the BJC in 2007. In 1974, its duration was ambitiously increased from 30 to 48 hours, and in 2007, it was shortened to 46 hours. Why 46, you may ask?

Well, in 2006, Penn State’s former president, Graham Spanier, made a negotiation with Big Ten Conference officials. In order to move THON from Rec Hall to the BJC, Spanier had to shorten the event by two hours, allowing enough time for the BJC to be cleaned and prepared in case of any home basketball games that were to happen that Sunday night. He decided that shaving off those last couple hours would be worth the sacrifice if it meant THON could be moved to the BJC, which can hold a lot more people than Rec Hall.

Clearly, THON has vastly and rapidly expanded, far exceeding the expectations (and even the dreams) of what its creators thought was possible. What began as a small fundraiser with less than 100 participants has skyrocketed into the world’s largest student-run philanthropy with over 15,000 volunteers. It holds such a special place in the hearts of Penn State students and alumni everywhere. From 1973 to 2021 and beyond, FTK forever.

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