UI Dance Marathon moves Big Event online for 2021

Zak Neumann, Homecoming Parade
University of Iowa Dance Marathon volunteers dance their way down the parade route. Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

As the University of Iowa makes preparations for a spring semester shaped by COVID-19, its largest student organization, UI Dance Marathon (UIDM), announced it will not host its annual 24-hour “Big Event” dance-a-thon in person this school year.

UIDM has involved tens of thousands of students and raised more than $30.3 million over its 27 years to assist pediatric oncology patients and their families at UI Hospitals and Clinics, as well as fund cancer research, technology and facilities for the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

UI COVID-19 regulations limit in-person gatherings on campus to 50 or fewer people, making the vast majority of Dance Marathon programming, including the Big Event, impossible. An online version of the event is being developed instead, according to UIDM leadership (which consists of more than 300 students), and will take place on Feb. 26, 2021, several weeks later than originally planned.

“We’re trying our best to do what we typically do at a Big Event,” Dance Marathon Executive Director Elizabeth Jackson told the Daily Iowan. “I don’t think we want to cut anything, we’re just reimagining how we can make it work for this year.”

Dance Marathon hosts a number of programs throughout the year, including picnics, silent auctions, “community day” fundraisers at local businesses, mini-marathons at area high schools and a fundraising campaign coinciding with the Chicago Marathon. But the Big Event — taking place primarily in the Iowa Memorial Union, where students who’ve raised enough money to participate stay awake and on their feet for 24 hours straight, without caffeine, and celebrate UIHC patients and families in a last, massive donation drive — is by far, well, the biggest.

The Big Event ends every year with an announcement of how much UIDM has raised in the 365 days since the last Big Event. In 2018, UIDM become only the second Miracle Network Dance Marathon in the nation to raise over $3 million in a single year. (The total was $3,011,015.24.) The 25th annual event in 2019 finished with just over $2.96 million, and on Feb. 8 of this year — one month exactly before the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Iowa — a total of $2.88 million was announced for the 2019-20 program.

It is unlikely UIDM will hit multi-million numbers by this February. COVID-19 has disrupted its spring, summer and fall events; sponsorship dollars from area businesses struggling under COVID-19 are limited; the Chicago Marathon was canceled this summer; and grassroots fundraising opportunities have been complicated as well. For example, UIDM traditionally encourages students to go “canning” in Iowa City neighborhoods before and after home football games, soliciting donations from tailgating Hawkeye fans. While the football season is set to resume in October, the fact fans will not be allowed in Kinnick Stadium, along with Johnson County’s continued COVID-19 surge and mask mandates, will inevitably dampen enthusiasm for tailgating.

Still, Jackson is confident the 27th UI Dance Marathon will still be meaningful effort.

“At the end of the day, making sure our families feel supported is our greatest measure of success,” she told the Daily Iowan. “I think, no matter what, we’ll still be able to do that.”

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