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Inside the University of Iowa's Dance Marathon: Small steps for a big cause

Here's what it's like to dance all night to raise money for kids with cancer

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By Alex Boisjolie, The Gazette

IOWA CITY — I don’t know which hurt more, my legs at Mile 21 of the Chicago Marathon, or my legs at Hour 21 of the University of Iowa Dance Marathon.

What I do know is that the pain my calves, thighs, heels and toes endured doesn’t even register to what parents go through when they’re told their child has cancer.

I’ve ran marathons before, but they didn’t hold any weight like the one I ran in Chicago last October, representing the UI Dance Marathon. Organizers handed out markings for us to put on our forearms — listing all 26.2 miles, and the name of the child with cancer we were running that mile for. When blisters on my feet formed, popped and formed again, I looked down and read Mile 21: Aubrey Townsend. And I sucked it up. One hundred ninety seven of us raised money to run in the marathon in the name of the Dance Marathon, and accumulated more than $270,000 toward the $2.4 million goal for the weekend’s 22nd Dance Marathon.

Leading up to Friday’s big event, instructions from my group leader were: wean yourself off caffeine — as it wasn’t allowed during the dance marathon — bring an extra pair of shoes, socks and clothes and prepare to have your life changed.

More than 1,700 of us gathered Friday night in Iowa Memorial Union main ballroom to dance for an entire 24 hours for the kids. Illuminated by strobe lights, hundreds of handmade pillowcases for the children in the pediatric ward outlined the walls. Hanging from the balcony was a quilt that listed children who lost their battle with cancer, and were dancing with us in our hearts.

We were introduced to the families we were helping, and held a moment of silence facing the quilt.

We met the Cohens, the family my group was assigned to honor. In 2013, Cody Cohen was 18 when diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia during his senior year in high school. His mom and dad told my group the unbearable challenges the family endured. Cody is now a student at the UI, his life saved when he found a bone marrow donor from a student from Puerto Rico.

Afterward, I went to the bone marrow donor registry in the lobby and signed up.

The hours were filled with games, music and increasingly sluggish looking people. In the ballroom, the music stopped every hour. A family was brought on stage to tell the story of their child’s fight with cancer. Sometimes the outcome was what they hoped. Other times, it was not.

Their stories made my exhaustion worth it.

At 7 a.m. Saturday, the building shook with Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi — sparking excitement since the crowd knew we were “halfway there.”

I can’t imagine all the work that went in this event. All the volunteers, logistics, food preparation and decorating were astonishing.

At 3 p.m., we witnessed 17 cancer survivors walk on stage in gold graduation caps and gowns and receive a certificate in honor of being cancer free for five years.

At 5 p.m., for “power hour,” thousands of glow sticks were thrown into the crowd, lights were turned off, music was turned up and we danced and shouted for the kids.

With one hour left at 6 p.m., we sat down. The weight off my legs was a relief, but was quickly overcome with a weight of grief as Austin “Flash” Schroeder’s family took the stage.

Flash struggled with T-cell lymphoma and died in April at age 15. His family told us that every day is going to have negatives, but every day is going to have positives as well. For the most satisfactory life, we must focus on the positives.

The dance marathon was concluded with the reveal of how much money we raised as an organization.

With an aggressive goal of $2.4 million, cards were flipped up on stage revealing the total — $2,424,031.22.

I didn’t know whether I wanted to cheer or cry.

So I did both.

Alex Boisjolie, 21, is a UI journalism student and reporting intern at The Gazette.

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