Penn State THON prepares for a virtual weekend of dancing

Penn State THON executive leaders sit on campus wearing face masks

Penn State THON executive leaders have been preparing to make the transition to a virtual event all year. While things will look different, they're hoping THON will look as close to normal as possible. (Sam Koon/Penn State THON)

This story originally appeared on WPSU.

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THON starts this Friday. Most years, thousands of Penn State students gather in the Bryce Jordan Center for the 46-hour dance marathon to raise money for families affected by childhood cancer. But because of COVID-19, this year’s event will look very different.

Mary Illicete learned her daughter had cancer in 2014, when Theresa was 9 years old. Illicete says she watched the disease steal away her daughter’s childhood. But she was able to get part of it back through THON.

“There’s almost no way to describe it because it’s very special,” Illicete said.

Illicete said Theresa bonded with members of Penn State’s Thespian Society who she was paired with as a THON child. The family has attended as many THONs as possible since then.

Illicete said she was “disappointed and sad” to hear THON would be virtual this year, but she’s still appreciative of the THON dancers.

“I really admire them, you know, it’s kind of like when you see a soldier in the store, you say ‘thank you for your service.’ That’s how I kind of feel about the Thespians and all the different dancers,” Illicete said.

The students who run THON are trying to make the event as close to normal as possible. But the pandemic means thousands of people – including many immunocompromised kids with cancer – can’t gather together in the Bryce Jordan Center.

Dancers will participate at home and tune into the livestream of the event like everyone else. Usually, dancers stand for the entire 46 hours. This year, THON Development Director Aidan Cliff said dancers are encouraged to sleep from midnight till 6 a.m. since they won’t have access to the usual on-site medical support.

“They don’t have the support like they would in the BJC, but during the day it’s going to be action packed, there’s plenty for them to do, and we really think the livestream is actually going to be a really fun time for them,” Cliff said.

Penn State senior Brooke Schindelheim is a THON dancer. She expects she and her dance partner will use the overnight break to sleep.

“I think it’ll be a great time, because everyone will do it at once, too. It’s not just like I’m missing something,” Schindelheim said.

Schindelheim said she’s preparing her body to dance as if it were a normal year. Since December, she’s been training physically and avoiding caffeine.

Students line up at a COVID-19 test site at Penn State's campus
File photo of a mobile COVID-19 test site on Penn State University Park campus. (Min Xian/WPSU)

But Schindelheim does worry about how she’ll stay motivated throughout the weekend without the energy of the BJC.

“I feel like we’re gonna have to really rely on ourselves to keep our energy up. We’re really gonna have to like, think about what we really want to keep ourselves occupied during that time and just making sure that we don’t strain ourselves too much to either,” Schindelheim said.

In 2020, more than 700 dancers participated in the event. This year, there will be fewer than 600.

It’s not just the crowd that the dancers will miss out on this year. They also won’t be as connected with their dancer relations partner who helps motivate them through the event.

Senior Madison Simms is on the dancer relations committee and has been using FaceTime and Zoom to connect with her dancer. She said she’ll continue using video calls over THON weekend and might have some in-person connections as well.

Penn State THON participants raise up signs indicating more than $10 million raised for pediatric cancer research in 2019.
Penn State’s THON raised more than $10 million for pediatric cancer in 2019. (Maddie Biertempfel/WPSU)

“They’re going to be in their apartments and I think we’re going to be able to drop stuff off or like spend time with them if they’re comfortable with it,” Simms said.

Simms said she expects some dancers will want to stand for the full 46 hours. She and other dancer relations committee members will be watching and ready to call 911 for help if anyone gets hurt.

“My captain was like, ‘You might have your dancers that are gonna be like, “I’m not listening to asleep thing I want to stay at 46.”‘ And so like we kinda have to be trained to deal with that,” Simms said.

The Penn State student organization 46 Live has streamed THON online for the past several years. It will be the only way to watch this year.

THON Public Relations Director Sam Koon said the stream will include a mix of prerecorded elements and live events coming from a mostly empty Bryce Jordan Center. The live parts will include local bands, the annual line dance performance and the reveal at the end of how much money was raised for the year.

“Our goal is to recreate the magic that usually happens in the Bryce Jordan Center in everyone’s homes around the world,” Koon said.

The Pep Rally, Family Hour and any special guest performances will also be pre-recorded.

Koon said planning for THON during a pandemic has been tricky.

“Since August it’s been really just hitting the ground running trying to make sure that all elements that we could potentially think of are in action,” Koon said.

As THON members look forward to Sunday’s total reveal, many are optimistic fundraising levels will remain steady. Schindelheim said a recent shift to online fundraising helped prepare them for the pandemic.

“It’s good that things were changing online as it was before previous years so now we don’t really like it’s not really like ‘Oh, my god! What do we do?’ It’s just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll raise the money,” Schindelheim said.

Mary Illicete said her family will take part in THON as much as they can this year.

“Theresa is going to watch whatever she can online, because it’s very modified so it’s going to look a lot different. And we’re going to participate as much as possible,” Illicete said.

THON weekend begins Friday at 6 p.m. and continues for 46 hours until Sunday at 4 p.m. The livestream can be found on THON’s website at thon.org.

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