By Steve Orbanek
Marketing Communications Specialist, Penn State Behrend
After attending the last two THONs as a spectator, Wes Dorrenbacher thought he had a good idea of what to expect when he was selected as a dancer for this year’s event.
That all changed around hour thirty-four.
“It was probably around 3:00 a.m. on early Sunday morning,” Dorrenbacher said. “It was finally real to me. I was just so humbled and thankful for this experience. For the next twenty minutes, I drew on a towel ‘Thank you’ and just started walking around the Bryce Jordan Center.”
More than 15,000 students participate each year in the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON), a 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping event that has raised more than $114 million since 1977 for the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. The fund pays for counselors, social workers, music therapists, and other specialists whose work with children fighting cancer often is not covered by insurance.
Dorrenbacher, a senior psychology major at Penn State Behrend, was one of 708 dancers at this year’s THON, which was held February 21-23 at University Park. He was joined by two other Behrend dancers, senior mechanical engineering major Nick Hirsch and freshman kinesiology major Rachael Hazen.
During the dance marathon, participants are assigned a “moraler” who encourages them to keep going. The support this person provides is essential as the dancers’ battle to stay awake is as much mental as it is physical.
Hirsch learned this the hard way Sunday morning.
“I got to Sunday morning, and I thought it was later than it actually was,” Hirsch said. “When my brain realized it wasn’t as late as I thought it was, my body just shut down.”
Thankfully, Hirsch’s moraler was there and managed to feed him some apples and bananas to help restore his energy. Frequent eating is one of the keys to getting through the marathon.
Of course, there are other methods. Spectators and kids patrol the Bryce Jordan Center with squirt guns filled with ice-cold water. Hirsch will be the first to admit that a splash to the face never felt so good.
“As soon as you get hit with that water, your brain just resets. The pain goes away, and your mind stops thinking about being tired,” Hirsch said.
However, even with the food, moralers, and squirt guns, participants inevitably struggle as they dance and force their minds and bodies to stay awake.
When a person’s body and mind gets pushed to such limits, emotions are inevitable. That’s exactly what Dorrenbacher felt early Sunday morning, but he feels that’s one of the draws of participating in THON.
“The delirium brings out the emotions you normally would not want to show,” Dorrenbacher said. “But that’s the point of the weekend — to bring out those weaknesses and show how much we care for this cause.”
When the event finally ended Sunday evening, an exhausted Dorrenbacher, Hirsch, and Hazen headed to Berkery Creamery for ice cream. It’s a tradition for Behrend participants to go to the creamery after THON.
Dorrenbacher said the emotion he experienced during that weekend was unparalleled to anything else he has felt in his life. In fact, the emotion stayed with him, even days after the event.
Both “Good Morning America” and ABC News World News covered THON in the days that followed the event. The Behrend dancers were even pictured briefly in the segments.
Dorrenbacher admitted that he started to tear up at just seeing a teaser for the segments. His emotion is indicative of the THON weekend and the profound effect it had on his life.
“THON was honestly the best weekend of my life to date,” Dorrenbacher said. “There’s nothing quite like fighting for a cause that is bigger than yourself.”