Penn State students begin annual dance marathon known as 'Thon'


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They train and then carbo load, sounding a little like they have their sights set on finishing 26.2 miles.

But in this marathon, success is measured in hours -- 46 to be precise, all spent on a dance floor with no sitting or sleep. Their prize, in return for sore muscles, is knowing they put their bodies on the line to fight childhood cancer.

At Penn State University, 707 dancers -- cheered on by thousands of others -- filled the Bryce Jordan Center Friday as the 42nd annual student-led Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, or "Thon," got under way.

More than 15,000 people are expected to cram into the arena on the main University Park campus for a weekend event that kicked off at 6 p.m. Friday and runs through 4 p.m. Sunday.

The event is being streamed live at http://thon.org/webcast.

Thon, the world's largest student-run philanthropy, is the product annually of thousands of volunteers and has been handed down through generations of undergraduates and others. Since 1973, it has raised more than $101 million, including $12,374,034.46 last year.

Proceeds go to the Four Diamonds Fund at Hershey Medical Center and are used to help families and children by covering medical bills not paid for by insurance and by advancing cancer research.

Dancers, among them Penn State senior marketing major Alexandra Valliant, 22, of Hampton, have trained, altered their diet and now are steeling themselves for the task of staying on their feet through Sunday afternoon.

Along with energy from the crowd, from the sight of beach balls being swatted in the air and from all the offbeat costumes, Ms. Valliant will have something extra to keep her going -- the presence of Sydney Bush, 10, and Riley Camp, 15, two cancer survivors whose families have been "adopted" for this year's event by her business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi.

"Thankfully, they're both in remission now," she said. "That's why we're dancing because they're such sensational kids."

Ms. Valliant, a 2010 Hampton High School graduate, admitted to being nervous but said anything she experiences physically this weekend pales next to what children with cancer and their families endure daily.

"How incredibly strong they are with all that's been dealt to them. I would almost feel guilty," she said.

Her mother, Paula, and a cousin also were expected to show up and cheer her on in the arena. She is one of four dancers from her fraternity.

The participants from Penn State's two-dozen campuses extend well beyond Greek life. They have penned letters soliciting donations; headed out on "canning weekends," when students solicit donations in canisters outside stores and at busy intersections; and undertaken myriad other fundraisers.

Earlier Friday, final preparations including setting up the sound system and laying down mats were underway in the Jordan Center.

"We started planning at the end of March last year," said Dana Giacobello, a Penn State senior from Wallingford, Pa., who is a Thon spokeswoman. "We're really excited to see everything come to fruition."


Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977. First Published February 21, 2014 4:29 PM

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