This Friday, after a full year of fundraising and preparation, over a thousand students will gather in a tent for 30 hours to participate in Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM). This 44-year campus tradition has raised over 19 million dollars for various charitable causes since its inaugural year in 1975, and has grown into one of the largest student-run philanthropies in the country. From 7 p.m. on Friday night to 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, the music never stops blaring and the dancers barely leave their feet.
For members of NUDM’s productions committee, though, the round-the-clock whirlwind of Dance Marathon begins even earlier and ends even later. Every year, at 9 a.m. on the Monday before the main event, three trucks of lighting, sound, and rigging equipment arrive at Norris and are loaded into the tent. For the next week, student-led crews work in the tent from before sunrise until well after sunset to get the event’s elaborate light show, large video screens, and numerous banners and set pieces ready for 30 hours of nonstop dancing.
“One of the unique things about NUDM is how many of the technical and production decisions are made by students,” said communication senior Isadora Porte, one of the co-lighting designers of the event. “Every year, we get to work with people on all sorts of different committees with all kinds of skill sets to help make the event better than ever.”
The scale of NUDM, she explains, is unlike any other event that students can work on during the year. The light plot includes 26 moving lights, 63 LED lights, thousands of feet of cable, and (new this year) a disco ball. Students will live-mix lights and video for the entire 30 hours of the event, including several pre-programmed light shows, including a dizzying display of strobe lights set to Darude’s “Sandstorm."
Once the 30 hours start, members of the productions committee remain busy behind the scenes. While the dancers party into the night, the productions crew (or “prod squad,” as they like to call themselves) run the light board, operate video cameras, and check the tent for equipment that needs to be repaired or swapped out. During breaks in the dancing, students will even wheel out a genie lift or set up a 20-foot ladder to climb up to the roof of the tent to fix broken lights or plug in loose cables.
In what might be the most grueling part of the entire process, the productions committee then stays overnight after dancers leave to take down the entire week’s worth of work in only a few hours, a process called strike. After they finally leave the tent on Sunday afternoon, members of the productions committee head over to Walker Bros. in Wilmette for a few stacks of celebratory pancakes. “We spend so much time together,” explained Porte, “that even folks who didn’t know each other a week earlier become friends by the time we’re done striking.”
This year’s Dance Marathon is raising money for Cradles to Crayons-- an organization that provides clothes, school supplies, toys, and other goods to children in need. In addition, NUDM is continuing its partnership with the Evanston Community Foundation to assist local families and strengthen university relations with the Evanston community. For more information, visit nudm.org.