Penn State’s THON is a 46-hour dance marathon at Penn State that has become the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Since its founding in 1973, the event has raised more than $203 million.
The Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Children’s Hospital is the event’s sole beneficiary. The fund was created to financially help families with children battling cancer while also supporting cancer research.
The dance was started as an event sponsored by Greek organizations at Penn State, but it is no longer run exclusively by fraternities and sororities. About 15,000 student volunteers across 370 organizations help raise money.
What was then known as the IFC Dance Marathon began in the Hetzel Union Building ballroom on February 2, 1973. It was the idea of the Interfraternity Council President Bill Lear, who wanted to revive the marathon dances that were popular in the 1920s and ’30s.
In the first event, couples tried to dance 30 hours without stopping. Passersby were encouraged to place donations in glass jars that belonged to each couple. The winning couple was determined by the amount of money they raised and how long they spent on the dance floor.
By the end of the dance, seventeen couples remained and about $2,000 was raised. The Interfraternity Council gave the winning couple $300, and the rest of the money was given to the Sheltered Workshop for Retarded Children.
The following year, the dance marathon was extended to 48 hours, and donations were given to the American Heart Association. Dancers got a one-hour break when a band that was scheduled to perform failed to show up. In 1976 the event introduced a theme: “Dance for Those Who Can’t,” and since then there has been a new theme each year.
In 1977, the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Children’s Hospital became the event’s sole beneficiary, receiving $28,000. The Four Diamonds Fund was established by Charles and Irma Millard after their 14-year-old son, Christopher, died from cancer. Since its creation, the fund has assisted more than 4,800 children and families battling cancer.
In 1979, the dance was moved to the Mary Beaver White Building to accommodate the increasing number of participants. For the first time, the dancers were not competing against each other, but they were required to remain standing for the entire event.
In 1983, the event raised more than $130,000, breaking a six-figure total for the first time. A year later, the event was recognized for being the largest student-run philanthropy of its kind. In 1987, the dance marathon acquired the THON name, and 472 students danced.
In 1992, donations broke the million-dollar mark with $1,141,145 raised. In 1997, Four Diamond families and the student volunteers met for the first time at the Family Carnival. The carnival, which features games and activities, has grown to became an annual event.
In 1998, as THON continued to gain public attention and require more space for dancers and spectators, the event was moved to Rec Hall. In 2007, THON moved to the Bryce Jordan Center, its current home, with seats for about 13,000 spectators.
For many years, “canning” was another way to raise money. Student groups traveled to cities around the state and stood in traffic at intersections to solicit donations that drivers could drop into “THON cans.” Canning was stopped in 2016 after a student died in a car accident while traveling to a canning event.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 THON was held virtually for the first time. The dancers performed their routines individually from their homes. Despite the challenges, $10.6 million was raised.
THON returned to the Bryce Jordan Center in 2022. More than 660 dancers participated and the event raised $13,756,374, an all-time record.
Since its start, more than 300 other schools across eight states have hosted their own dance marathons to donate to the Four Diamonds Fund.
Passante, Robyn. “Fifty Years of THON,” Penn Stater, January / February 2022.
“Leete couple wins IFC dance marathon,” Daily Collegian, February 5, 1973.
“How THON has adapted amid difficult circumstances in the past,” Daily Collegian, August 17, 2020.
“Our History,” Thon, https://thon.org/history (Accessed January 17, 2022).
First Published: February 2, 2022
Last Modified: November 29, 2022