The Best of Us

When I first landed in Ames, Iowa in 2000 to begin my Masters degree in Higher Education, a couple of life-changing events happened almost immediately.  First, I met the woman to whom I will soon be married for 10 years.  Second, Brian Tenclinger invited me to help advise Iowa State Dance Marathon.

I was a Dance Marathon participant as an undergraduate at Miami, but at the time it was a fairly minor event on that campus.  At Iowa State, it had positioned itself as among the biggest campus organizations and programs.  The decision to help advise them was at first a decision to bolster my fledgling resume.  It didn’t take too long to figure out that it was absolutely a privilege and an honor.

Brian soon left Iowa State, and I took over full advisorship.  I was young and made some mistakes, but the students I worked with were the best kind of teachers – understanding.  Together we helped raise each other to higher levels of excellence.  To this day, they are still the best undergraduates I have ever worked with.

Dance Marathons exist all over the country.  The very first Dance Marathon was started at Penn State in 1973 by the campus Interfraternity Council.  That year, the participants raised $2,136.  Last year, they raised $9.5 million.  Other Dance Marathons include Indiana University ($1.8 million in 2011), the University of Iowa ($1.2 million in 2011), and Northwestern University ($1 million in 2011).  Most events raise money for the Children’s Miracle Network, but not all.  Most also were started and built up by fraternity and sorority students.  While many have broadened themselves to be campus-wide, fraternity and sorority members still lead the way.  There are other similar events that seem to have the same kind of power - such as the Up til Dawn program through St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Dance Marathon may be the ideal college philanthropy, for the following reasons:
  • It combines fundraising with hands-on service experiences.  Dancers raise money for young children in need, and then spend time with them, providing them the experience of a lifetime.
  • There is serious fundraising.  This isn’t a penny war.  It looks and feels like a charity event you would find in the biggest city.
  • It teaches leadership.  There are lots of moving parts (literally), a huge need for organization and teamwork, and the stakes are high.
  • It’s a sincerely compassionate cause.  It supports children and their families during their darkest times.  And because Children’s Miracle Network hospitals exist all over the country, there is a good chance you can find one close to campus, thereby building a campus/community connection.
  • It’s tough.  This is a not a teeter-totter-a-thon.  The actual event is grueling, both physically and emotionally.  In a world where people feel that wearing an awareness ribbon is enough, Dance Marathon shows participants that working hard for a good cause is worth it.
  • It’s about kids.  Because of that, it can warm the coldest heart and make even the most self-centered individual devote themselves to a lifetime of service.
  • It’s an absolute blast.  Music, dancing, food, bright colors, kids to play with – what’s not to love?
I still remember the kids I met through the program.  I was a bit na├»ve about childhood illnesses, and like many, would turn away when I saw a kid in a wheelchair, with burns on his face, or deformities in his body.  But after they let me into their lives, I now look them squarely in the eye and with a smile a mile wide.  After all, kids with their courage deserve every smile they can get.

When my wife and I decided to get married in Ames, circumstances caused the date of our wedding to be in conflict with that year’s Dance Marathon.  I was disappointed, but of course ecstatic about the wedding.  Other advisors took over, and the event was a tremendous success.  My wife surprised me by inviting 20 of the student leaders I had worked with to sneak away to our reception and do the morale dance for us.  We surprised them in turn by showing up after our wedding, in gown and tux, to cheer them on.  That's how much it grabs your heart.

Iowa State Dance Marathon celebrated 15 years of success with their event this past weekend.  A huge undergraduate and alumni effort resulted in the biggest year ever for the program – by a mile.  $380,000 is going to the Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.  I would have traded almost anything to be standing in that Great Hall to listen to the roar of 800 students – members of a so-called selfish generation – as those numbers were revealed.  Over the next few months, those cheers will be joined by participants across the land, as they dance for kids who sometimes struggle to walk.

I remember Caleb, a child who had barely survived a horrific car crash, standing on stage with scars on his head,  but not on his soul.  With hundreds of college students standing in silence with baited breath, Caleb belted out the most beautiful version of “This Little Light of Mine” I had ever heard.

A few fraternity and sorority students, many years ago, created Dance Marathon.  And Dance Marathon has created opportunities for kids like Caleb to sing.  And dance.  And be loved by their “college friends.”  It’s the perfect philanthropy.

It’s the best of us.

For more information on Dance Marathon, visit this website:



  1. John - thank you for capturing exactly how I feel about Dance Marathon. It was a pleasure to read and go back in time to my own participant & advising experience. It truly is the perfect philanthropy. - Cara

    1. Thanks to you John for being able to take me dancingly down the memory lane of DM at ISU. How exciting indeed to see it all bloom so beautifully. Ah....Thank you for your heart, your compassion, your willingness to learn...your ability to share knowledge and to continue being the good man that you are. Blessings! Lisa Baum

  2. I'm a student at the University of Connecticut and the Co-Exec for HuskyTHON Dance Marathon. Our event is in 24 days and we are so excited, thank you so much for posting this -- I will be sharing it with our Management Team =) #FTK

  3. Thank you John so such a beautiful reflection! I have such loving memories of the early years working with you and the incredible student leaders! It was amazing to be in Great Hall this year and see the 880 students in teal....just gave me goosebumps :) SO proud of you and who you are! Love, Michelle Altmaier

  4. I never cease to be amazed by the incredible people connected to Iowa State Dance Marathon.

    John, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the miraculous thing that we call Dance Marathon. Your words moved me to tears as I once again felt the emotions that I experienced this past Saturday standing up on stage in the Great Hall as we finally revealed our fundraising total. It was a beautiful number - a number that will change lives. But when I really sit back and reflect on what makes Dance Marathon so remarkable, it's not the money that comes to mind... It's the ISU football player running around with a miracle kiddo; it's two college students praying in front of an angel child memorial; it's hundreds of students spontaneously joining in song as a miracle child sings "You Raise Me Up"... As you said, IT'S THE BEST OF US.

    As a member of the Greek community and as a member of the Dance Marathon family, with all of my heart, I thank you. To borrow the words from our final slideshow this past weekend:

    Thank you for giving. Thank you for loving. Thank you for dancing.

    Kickin' it for the Kids,

    Szuyin Leow
    General Co-Director
    Iowa State Dance Marathon 2012

  5. My family was chosen as a DM family this year. We had twin boys last April (9 months old right now) and one of them was born with kidney disease. We currently do dialysis every night at home and are hoping for a kidney transplant in our future. Our first experience with the ISU DM was amazing! We cannot say enough good things about the ISU students. Their excitement was contagious and I hope that they know how much what they are doing does make a difference to families just like ours. 15 hours. Wow! Incredibly sefless! Already looking forward to next year. Thank you for this post!

  6. John,

    Wow, this is powerful. I was there with Chris Deal and several others of DM past to experience Power Hour. I could not be more proud of what Dance Marathon has become, not just on campus but across the nations. Hats off to ISU for continuing to support this life changing event.

    Cory Hanson

  7. John,

    I've attended Penn State's THON the past 2 years and it is truly the most inspiring event I have ever taken part in. Thanks for sharing this great blog post!