THON 2021, Pep Rally

With 19 commonwealth campuses across Pennsylvania, Penn State offers prospective students a plethora of opportunities to complete their undergraduate — and even graduate — education.

One of these campuses is located in my hometown Erie, Pennsylvania — a short 20-minute drive from my house. What better opportunity for me to begin my undergraduate experience?

There was one catch — attending Penn State Behrend caused me to miss out on many “staple experiences” of being a true Penn State student, like attending THON and joining the throng of students dancing and partying “For the Kids” in the Bryce Jordan Center.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and Penn State guidelines designed to mitigate the disease’s spread, my first THON experience has been an unprecedented, if not interesting, one.

Here are some of the memorable moments that made my first THON one for the books.

Watching the livestream

With social distancing guidelines limiting the BJC’s capacity, dancers and audience members alike had to tune in to the THON livestream to participate in this year’s event.

The stream featured a compilation of hosts emceeing live, dance captains leading line dances through prerecorded videos, cover bands performing live from the BJC’s empty stage, kid-centered events like a talent show and a fashion show, and dance breaks featuring playlists of today’s popular music.

This year, there were even two six-hour dancer breaks during which prerecorded interviews between THON public relations officials and current and former dancers were broadcast.

Luckily, I had access to a TV, so watching the stream proved easy. I could just connect my laptop and play the stream on a large, accessible screen to watch in the background as I worked on homework, ate or did some chores.

After a while, however, the lack of in-person interaction made me feel isolated and detached from the proceedings. Participating in THON this year felt like watching a movie — I was there, but I didn’t feel like part of the story.

Learning the line dance

A facet of every THON weekend is the line dance. DR captains create lyrics that detail the positives — and negatives — of the previous year, then choreograph a routine to these lyrics, often also including mashups of some of the year’s most played songs.

This year, the line dance included several references to TikTok, featuring songs that grew famous from the app.

There were also references to Taylor Swift’s two new albums, the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

Some of the songs included Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love,” Saweetie’s “My Type” and Doja Cat’s “Say So.”

While I first found the routine and THON-specific lyrics to be a bit cringe, the recurrence of the dance throughout the weekend provided me with opportunities to get up and move around. It also seemed to be a fun competition between my friends and I to see who could get it all down first.

Learning the steps to the dance proved a daunting task over a livestream, but participating seemed to restore a bit of the magic lost because of the virtual format.

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Listening to the performers

Throughout THON weekend, various bands and individuals performed live from the BJC’s empty stage while some sent in recorded performances, which were broadcast on the livestream.

There were even a cappella groups that compiled individual videos of their members and made a singular video

Most performers sang covers of popular songs — including “All Star” by Smash Mouth, “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers and “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus — but some sang original pieces too.

Ranging from mediocre to absolutely stunning, the performers provided light and entertainment to the weekend, showcasing their talents to the thousands who streamed from home. Some performances were moving, while others were upbeat and peppy.

Personal opinions aside, all performers went home winners for having the courage to perform on such a large and impactful stage.

Though the impact of many performances was shallow due to the virtual nature of the event, each performance brought with it a personal story and experience. They reminded viewers that THON is about both the remembrance and the celebration of those battling childhood cancer.

The Angels of THON

Perhaps the most memorable moment of THON weekend this year was the deeply moving slideshow of THON children who lost their battle to childhood cancer, referred to as The Angels of THON.

Shown following the Family Hour stories at the beginning of the Final Four, pictures of more than 100 children flashed across the screen, telling the stories of each child’s life. There were even some videos.

Behind the pictures were songs — melancholy, dramatic and reminders of why THON is still going strong after 48 years.

The presentation ended with a small storyboard of Christopher Millard, son of Charles and Irma Millard, who founded Four Diamonds in 1973. The video recounted why the Millards fight to this day to cure childhood cancer.

Knowing the true nature and mission of THON beforehand, the entire slideshow was still shocking to me and made me tear up. I found my heart aching for the families of those who lost children, siblings, cousins or other loved ones to childhood cancer.

Though my first THON experience was lacking due to its virtual nature, I will never forget the emotions, stories and memories I made this weekend. THON 2021 was truly a story of resilience, perseverance and motivation, and that was evident for the entire 46 hours.

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