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IOWA CITY — With handfuls of glow sticks flung over the crowd, a throbbing bass line and wild cheers, Iowa City West High School Dance Marathon's Power Hour launched into exuberant action Jan. 15.
For the next 60 minutes, hundreds of high school students danced with all the energy they had left — they had already been on their feet for five hours, dancing, listening to testimonials from families impacted by cancer and cheering each other on.
Dance Marathon, a national fundraising program aimed at fighting pediatric cancer, started in 1991 on college campuses, with students raising money in exchange for a pledge to dance for 24 hours — they are not allowed to sit down or drink caffeine for the entire day. Nationally, the program has raised $150 million for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals over the last 25 years.
The University of Iowa has raised almost $19 million of that total, with students holding 24-hour dance events annually since 1994. But in recent years, the college students haven't been raising that money alone.
More and more K-12 students are getting involved in the cause, with elementary, middle and high schools partnering with universities to host 'mini' Dance Marathons. They are shorter — West High students danced for six hours instead of 24 — but the participants are equally enthusiastic, and rightfully so — many have seen cancer's impact firsthand.
Senior Kate Vander Leest, 17, got involved after West High student Austin 'Flash' Schroeder died in 2015 following a fight with t-cell lymphoma. Schroeder, who inspired his classmates with his 'Win the Day' slogan, would have been a junior this year.
'Cancer is a serious thing, and once it impacts you personally or is in your community, you want to make a difference,' Vander Leest said. 'I decided to dance in memory of him and also to prevent future losses like him and inspire others to win the day.'
Biology teacher Jenifer Secrist helped students bring Dance Marathon to West High five years ago, as a way to honor student Caroline Found, who died in a moped crash in 2011.
'These kids are so passionate, they so much want to live for other people and make a difference,' Secrist said. 'Cancer doesn't stop, it doesn't discriminate. Any of us could be next, but we're here to say that we're here together.'
The first 'mini' Dance Marathon associated with the University of Iowa was in 2008, and schools have been steadily joining in since. In 2016, the University of Iowa partnered with more than 90 high schools, middle schools and elementaries.
Many Corridor schools have gotten involved, including Kennedy and Jefferson high schools and Franklin and Regis middle schools in Cedar Rapids and Hoover, Lincoln, Weber, Horn and Borlaug elementaries and Regina, West and Iowa City high schools in Iowa City. Dance Marathon students and alumni have also reached out to their alma matters, bringing in schools across the state. Now, they are starting to reach across state lines to schools in Illinois.
Adding up donations
Those efforts have helped build up Dance Marathon on campus, said UI junior Michael Caligiuri, development director with Dance Marathon at the University of Iowa. The events raise awareness along with funds; many incoming freshman are already familiar with the program and are quick to get involved.
'Students right away get involved in Dance Marathon if they were involved with minis,' he said. 'We're doing all that we can to be the generation that ends cancer.'
At the end of West High's Power Hour came the 'Big Reveal,' the moment when the students learned how much they had raised after a year of fundraising: $96,255.22.
On Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3-4, at the UI Dance Marathon, that total will be added to the funds raised by students dancers at the dozens of other schools that have partnerships with UI, plus the money raised by UI students. Last year, those efforts raised more than $2.4 million. This year, the goal is a very precise $2,758,511.23.
That number is specific for a region, Caligiuri said. It is based on the number of hospital beds at the UI Stead Family Children's Hospital, the number of fundraising activities planned throughout the year and the number of families the program helps. The money will go to everything from cancer research funding to helping families with insurance copays, parking fees at the hospitals and gift cards for dinner while children receive treatment, among other things. A wing of the new hospital is named for Dance Marathon after the organization made a $5 million pledge.
'Movement is such a force'
In the West High lobby, students who had already been on their feet for hours took turns running on a treadmill — each mile or minute they ran meant more money raised in pledges. Pictures and stories of students impacted by cancer lined a wall, surrounded by paper cutouts of hands, with a reason to dance written on each palm, reasons like, 'More laughs,' 'More first dates' and 'More happy tears.'
Senior Jenny Pigge, 18, is a member of the West High Dance Marathon leadership team. Looking at the balloon-decorated hallway, the parent volunteers handing out pizza and selling T-shirts and the hundreds of students dancing, she compared the importance of Dance Marathon at the school to time honored traditions like prom or homecoming.
'It's become one of the big school events of the year,' she said. 'This movement — I'm not going to call it an event, because it's more than that — this movement is such a force.'
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