Rose McDaid was sitting in anatomy class when she saw an email out of the corner of her eye. The busy Penn State sophomore is in the university’s Blue Band, a member of the kinesiology club, and an ambassador for her academic college, so most days probably fly by in a flurry of messages to her inbox. This one made all of that fade away for a day.
“I saw the email…and almost started crying in my lecture hall,” McDaid said. “I didn’t have time to celebrate until after class, but the whole rest of the day was a huge whirlwind.”
The message, informing her that she was chosen to dance in Penn State’s THON this weekend, actualized what McDaid calls a “crazy dream.” The dream was in the works long before July 2019, when she and her best friend Jordan Pietrafitta started fundraising for the event. The dream was what others told her was a “difficult thing” to do when she was at Cedar Crest High School. Before the dream to participate in THON took form, it was just a way for a sixth grader to make friends at her new school.
What is THON?
Formally the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, “THON” is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. The first marathon took place in 1973 with 78 dancers in a campus ballroom. In 1977, THON adopted the Four Diamonds Fund, established five years before to support children being treated for pediatric cancer at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital, as its beneficiary. As the size and popularity of the event increased, THON outgrew several campus recreation spaces and eventually landed in its current home, the 15,261-seat Bryce Jordan Center in University Park. Since its inception, THON has raised around $168 million for patients, their families, and cancer research. For 46 hours every year, students, alumni, family, and friends file in and out of the arena for games, food, concerts, and a powerful sense of community.
When McDaid joined a Mini-THON committee at Cedar Crest Middle School, she was already vaguely aware of the event. Her parents met at Penn State as students and she was raised in a Penn State family, which meant plenty of drives from Lebanon to State College as a child. Still, McDaid spent the year learning more about the Four Diamonds Fund, THON’s beneficiary and support system for children with pediatric cancer at Penn State Children’s Hospital. Her growing interest was bolstered by a trip to THON 2012 to perform onstage with her baton twirling team.
“Being able to see the ‘real’ THON was an eye-opening experience for me because I got to see the students who were dancing, the committee members and organizations, and the Four Diamond families who were able to attend. That’s when I really knew that I had to be a part of this amazing movement and I had contributed whatever I could do to help these kids,” she said.
She continued to contribute throughout her grade school days. McDaid became the president of the committee, attended a Mini-THON conference in Hershey, and brought the cause with her to high school. There, she served on the executive committee as well as the leader of the traditional THON line dance, a song and dance packed with references from the previous year and performed every hour.
McDaid always knew she wanted to go to Penn State and participate in THON, but up until that point, she hadn’t figured out how she was going to dance yet. That’s when she met Pietrafitta, now her roommate, and knew they had to try to do it together instead of with their respective THON organizations.
Until the time came for them to enter the lottery for Independent Dancer Couples trying to dance in THON, McDaid volunteered in other ways. She joined Ohana, a special interest organization solely created for the event and its year-round initiatives. She spent the year raising money and spending time with Ohana’s assigned Four Diamonds families. She then went behind the scenes as a Dancer Relations Committee Member, all of whom are paired with dancers to boost their morale during THON Weekend. Once July hit, months of bake sales, canvassing, and planning in the pair’s apartment were put into motion. Now that McDaid is on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center for the rest of the weekend, she’s firm in her stance both physically and mentally.
“As a dancer, we are the statement of THON. We are saying that if these kids can go through chemo, surgery, and IVs, we can stand for 46 hours for them,” she said. “I hope to develop my understanding and relations with THON more this weekend and maybe come away from it with a new drive for next year.”
Though its underlying message bears a heavy weight, THON Weekend is about fun for the children, their families, dancers, and a community that rallies around them year after year. For one weekend every February, the Bryce Jordan Center is an explosion of light, music, love and laughter. It’s no wonder that a former line dance leader’s favorite part of those 46 hours is still the line dance.
“It’s so fun, keeps everyone stretched, and brings everyone together when we are the most tired,” McDaid said. “Each line dance every year always surprises me and I’m so excited to perfect this one.”
It’s not often you meet a THON participant who’s played a role in nearly every one of the organization’s long-reaching arms. As a majorette in the Blue Band, McDaid got the unique opportunity to perform onstage and have time on the floor to interact with kids in past years, which “made the experience more well-rounded” for her. While the children she played with were probably taken with her baton skills and sparkling blue uniform, she says that time and time again, she’s most inspired by them and their families:
“Getting into the BJC and seeing the families arriving…seeing them in here already so early to support their dancers, the kids having fun: I always think that’s the most inspiring thing of the whole weekend.”
On Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, Rose McDaid looked at her phone. It was 5:55 p.m., five minutes before she would stand up for the first time as a dancer at THON. Eight years of dedication and eight visits to eight different THONs had wound down to five minutes. She didn’t know what to expect. She never knew if she would ever get her turn.
“It kind of hit me that it was now my turn and everyone was watching me and my dancing partner stand up to fight pediatric cancer,” she said. “It was really surreal…we were just sitting down and then we were standing up and all of a sudden, I was crying.”
THON kicked off at the Bryce Jordan Center on Friday, Feb. 21 at 6 p.m. and will run until Sunday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. For more, watch the THON livestream or follow coverage at Onward State or the Daily Collegian.
Do you know a Lebanon Countian with a connection to THON? Share with our newsroom team using the form below.
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