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  • Tessa Ramsden

Unsuspecting Student in the IMU Caught Up in Dance Marathon Madness

dance marathon

When first-year Biochemistry major Eli Hanson walked into the IMU this past Friday night, he had expected nothing but blissful silence to study in. Instead, he was greeted with a wave of excitable freshmen all wearing neon green, swarming around the building while dated pop music played in the background. Hanson didn’t know that it was the weekend of the Dance Marathon Big Event.


As Hanson recounted their experience to Doily, they were automatically assumed to be a late arrival and handed a bag of cheap toiletries and snacks for the 24-hour stay in the IMU. As they were guided towards the ballroom, they tried to explain there had been a misunderstanding, but the Dance Marathoners were too excited about their “Big Event” to think anyone would walk into the IMU that night without the goal of circling through middle school dance activities to raise money for childhood cancer research.


“They all sort of seemed like a hive mind,” Hanson told Doily. “It was like they all knew exactly what to do to keep me there, and when I tried to sit down and talk the situation through with them, they all glared at me like I was giving the kids cancer myself.” 


Hanson—who had only heard brief mentions of Dance Marathon as a “cult-like” student organization throughout his first semester at the University of Iowa—decided it was safer at first to play along rather than fight back.


When handed a selection of jarring, brightly colored T-shirts, they saw their options for blending into the background and slipping away later were disappointingly limited: the options included neon green, hot pink, bright orange, and tie-dye. Hanson reluctantly opted for the tie-dye, which was mostly red and therefore appeared the least offensive to the eyes. This was unfortunately their next grave error.


The tie-dye T-shirt designated Hanson as a “Morale Captain”, the role in Dance Marathon in which members lead groups of other students through the 24-hours by remaining almost frighteningly peppy and upbeat so as to pressure everyone into continuing. This includes dancing every hour, on the hour to a “Morale Dance” that is made of a mashup of the most trending TikTok dances from nine months ago, intending to be hip and cool but often more awkwardly dated. 


When the clock struck nine, and one hour and passed since Hanson had walked into the IMU, they found themselves being pushed around the ballroom yet again, but this time towards the front of the stage.


“The music was so loud, and cut between songs in the weirdest places,” Hanson recalled. “I just tried to hide in the back, but the two sorority girls on either side of me were yelling at me to dance. At least I didn’t have to be good.”


After that harrowing experience, Hanson determined their best course of action was to leave before the next hour hit and they were forced to participate in that seven-minute mid-tier mashup again. However, as they moved for the doors of the IMU, they found that all entrances were blocked by volunteers in neon pink shirts standing like bouncers against the doors. Hanson attempted to approach one, but claims that when they pushed their hand against the doorway, the student bouncer pulled the door back to closed, and told them, “Go. Buy some merch. Raise some money.” Hanson didn’t know what the bouncers would do if they refused, so they backed off and shuffled into one of the many lines for pastel merchandise surrounding the lobby.


Hanson ended up buying a bucket hat and kneeling on the ground to paint a pillowcase before another hour had passed and they were called to the stage yet again for a Morale Dance.


“The second time, I started to realize the moves weren’t actually that hard,” Hanson admitted. “I still stuck to the back, but I did remember a lot of the trends they were replicating and tried out some of the moves.” However, the moment the music switched back to standard DJ family-friendly pop, they realized they couldn’t do that again.


With no obvious means of escape, Hanson decided the next best course of action was to find an empty room to hole up in until morning and then try again, as it was starting to get late. They ascended to the third floor of the IMU and began trying all the doors, searching for one that was unlocked. 


Finally, a smaller conference room opened, and Hanson stepped in with relief: only to find a circle of a dozen Dancers listening to a family of three tearfully explain their son’s journey with childhood leukemia. Hanson awkwardly attempted to back out of the room, before deciding that at that point, it would be rude to rush in and rush out again. They stood at the back of the throng of dancers and listened for upwards of 45 minutes to this child’s inspiring journey to recovery, and did even find themself tearing up towards the end of the story. However, they still hadn’t found any peace and quiet, and it was time for another Morale Dance.


This time, Hanson went through the motions a little stronger, and even ended up moving towards the front of the dancers on stage. When they fumbled through a section of the Renegade, they heard uproarious laughter, but they tried to tamp down their embarrassment by fading into the background once more after the dance, this time remaining in the ballroom to listen for any escape strategies there.


“It was so loud in that room, and it’s bright but also dark?” Hanson explained. “The lights are all off except for the stage, but everyone is wearing neon so it doesn’t even matter. And the noise…” Hanson trailed off at this, looking into the distance as if they were a soldier remembering a violent battle. “I thought it was just bad with the music, but then they added the drum.”


At certain points in their event, Dance Marathon encourages participants to bang on a bass drum every time they fundraise a certain amount of money. This repetitive banging made Hanson’s distress increase. They remember after almost a half hour of that incessant thudding, they stepped up to the stage and wrote “HELP” on the side of the drum with Sharpie, before banging it repeatedly and yelling for people to notice their dilemma. Instead, Dancers assumed this was an enthusiastic member encouraging people to HELP donate to childhood cancer research, and began yelling and screaming right back at Hanson.


Hanson said this is the point where they broke. The next few hours were a blur: the same long and sub-par mashup dance every hour, interspersed with memories of playing minute-to-win-it challenges, jumping in a mosh pit, and crying over and over at the tragic stories of the families attending the event. Hanson didn’t fully return to themselves until the sun began streaming through the IMU windows, and they realized they had spent the entire night at Dance Marathon.


After the tenth or so round of dancing, Hanson was once again pacing near the doors to the exit when an idea struck: “I realized I had seen so many vulnerable kids at this thing, the only way someone would be allowed to leave was if they put those kids at risk,” Hanson explained.


They walked towards the bouncer at the main entrance, and when they were roughly six feet away, they turned and pretended to cough profusely into their elbow. Hanson said the bouncer was at their side in seconds, with a vice grip on their wrist. “Are you sick?” The bouncer asked.


Hanson attempted to look sheepish. “Well, I have had a bit of a cold the last few days, but–”


Before they could finish their lie, the bouncer had raced them towards the exit and dumped them outside on the steps of the IMU. “Thanks for coming,” they said gruffly, before slamming the door shut behind them and squirting the hand sanitizer at the door’s entrance several times.


Hanson said looking up into the morning sunlight, they felt as if they had been freed from a prison sentence. They stumbled home to their dorm room before falling asleep for the next 36 hours. When they awoke, they burned the tie-dye shirt.

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