Memory Lane: Dance Till You Drop

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Dance-A-Thon moved, grooved and raised money for charity

Inspired by a similar dance marathon at the University of Maryland—which was itself inspired by the movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)—Dance-A-Thon was a grand entertainment: part spectator sport, circus carnival, music festival and theatrical performance, all rolled into one. “It was a magical experience,” says singer/songwriter and frequent performer Megon McDonough. (Image courstey of UIAA)
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Dance-A-Thon moved, grooved and raised money for charity

“‘Dance, dance, dance! I have an ache I can’t fake and a pain I can’t explain!’ That was something we shouted all weekend that first year,” recalls Dr. Wayne Goldstein, ’74 LAS.

The time was 1973. The place: Huff Gym, packed with 4,000 spectators and more than 60 pairs of dancers, there to square off in a Friday-through-Sunday dance marathon that would test their endurance and arch support.

Organized by the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, the marathon was part of a nationwide collegiate fundraiser for muscular dystrophy research—a weekend-long extravaganza that was shaping up to be the weirdest, wildest philanthropic event of the season.

From the outset, it was clear that this was no mere fundraiser. Aside from the dancers—who hoped to win the grand prize trip to Las Vegas by surviving until Sunday night and raising the most money from supporters—there were rock bands on stage for 52 hours, girls in flapper dresses selling refreshments and fearless men swallowing fire, all for the crowd’s delight.

Chicago Bears running back Joe Moore had his beard shaved off for a donation, while Goldstein and the event’s other emcees—bright white tuxedoes, black bow ties, lapels out to there—found truly insane ways to keep the audience engaged and their wallets open.

Dancing with a dog, 1977 (Image courtesy of Illini Media); Wayne Goldstein and Fellow Emcees, 1973 (Image courtesy of Wayne Goldstein) and Harry Chapin, 1977 (Image courtesy of Illini Media)

“I swallowed a live goldfish for every $5,000 we made,” says Goldstein. “I felt the fish wiggle in my esophagus, and it got worse when I drank water but stopped when I drank a Coke.” That discovery came in handy, as he ultimately swallowed nine goldfish that weekend.

Year after year, that was the vibe of ZBT’s Dance-A-Thon: novelty, lunacy, spectacle—all in good fun and for a host of good causes.

Through it all, the marathon remained a unique experience for the dancers themselves, who banded together in a spirit of cooperation rather than competition, following the contest’s one and only rule: never stop moving. They didn’t technically have to dance. They just couldn’t stand still, sit down, hide under the bleachers or the like. Locomotion was the name of the game, and as long as the contestants complied, they could do anything within reason.

True, some started off by dancing like they were on a mission, but those were the ones who dropped out early. Those who lasted found other ways to pass the time. Some threw Frisbees or jumped rope, while the more energy-conservative contestants read the newspaper or played cards.

As the weekend wore on, a few contestants even swayed with textbooks in hand, studying for their Monday-morning exams. “I need a pan of water for my feet and some NoDoz,” said Stacy Schultz Ruwe, ’83 LAS, one Sunday night—miles to go before she slept—and that summed it up as well as anything.

Dance For Those Who Can’t flyer (Image courtesy of Pete Hunter)

Still, when it was all said and done, it “seemed to go by fairly fast,” says former Illini men’s basketball player Dennis Graff, ’76 BUS, who won two of the first three marathons. “We spent a lot of time talking with other dancers and got to know a lot of new people.”

Dance-A-Thon kept this spirit of fundraising and friend-making going for nearly two decades, saving its last dance for 1989.

But as it turned out, the U of I wasn’t quite done with dance marathons. A generation later, a new wave of collegiate dance marathons hit the hardwood, administered by the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. The U of I’s version, IlliniThon, has grown into the University’s largest student fundraiser. Sponsored in part by the University of Illinois Alumni Association, the event has raised more than $1 million for the St. John’s Children’s Hospital in Springfield since 2007.

Today, nearly 50 years after the first ZBT Dance-A-Thon, its organizers can take comfort in knowing that their philanthropic spirit lives on—proving that sometimes all you need to raise money is a good cause, a good plan and the energy to dance dance dance!

Editor’s note: Special thanks to dance marathons historian Pete Hunter for his assistance with this story.