By Morgan Eads, Amelia Orwick and Nini Edwards | @KyKernel
More than 800 students twisted, jived and shimmied for 24 hours this Friday and Saturday at Memorial Coliseum to help raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer.
In its eighth year, DanceBlue raised $1,113,189.42 to benefit the DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic.
Following the reveal of the total, a special announcement informed participants of a $500,000 endowment fund started by the late Joy Wills, a Kentucky native who beat cancer three times.
Wills felt passionately about three things: UK, children and beating cancer, said Whitney Dunlap, Wills’ attorney, who presented the fund.
Officials also announced the winners of awards, including Best Small Team, Medium Team and Large Team, which went to ROTC, Super Crew and Delta Zeta, respectively. The Golden Matrix Cup, DanceBlue’s highest honor, was awarded to Alpha Gamma Delta for the second year in a row.
Dancers stayed entertained until the big announcement with a 10-minute line dance, performed every hour, which included songs from artists such as AC/DC, Little Big Town and Ke$ha, and featured music from the soundtrack of “Mulan.”
Dancer morale was heightened when famous figures such as UK men’s basketball head coach John Calipari and ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale stopped in to offer encouragement.
Jennifer Lawrence, a Louisville native and award-winning actress, sent well wishes to the dancers from afar, through a video recorded on the set of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in Hawaii.
Lawrence’s video is just one example of how technology was used during the marathon.
“We try to use every little bit (of technology) we can … in order to get the word out about DanceBlue so we can raise more money in order to help end cancer, which is our end goal here,” said Alex Mackey, DanceBlue’s technology chair.
Wi-Fi in the building was amplified and laptops were set up to allow students to use social media.
“They have the TVs up that let us see tweets that are coming in, and some of them are really encouraging,” said Shelby Malone, who was dancing for Alpha Phi Omega. “It’s kind of nice to know that you’re a part of something so big.”
Sophomores Mary McNulty and Leah Richardson, dancing for Delta Zeta, also appreciated the support.
The pair participated as freshmen, but the marathon time was cut in half because of severe storms that swept through central and eastern Kentucky.
“It was 100 times better than last year,” Richardson said at the close of the marathon. “I can’t even put it into words.”
La’Rod King, former wide receiver for the UK football team, also danced in the marathon.
“Being a student athlete may seem tough, but these kids fight for their lives every day,” King said.
The football player added that his involvement would not end when the clock ran out.
“I’ll do everything I can when I graduate, whether that’s donating a dollar or $5 million,” King said.
During designated meal times, dancers were given the option to feast on food from Q’doba, Orange Leaf, Chick-Fil-A and Long John Silvers, among other restaurants.
Between guest appearances, meals and dances, participants were entertained with fun and games, including several attempts at breaking world records.
Bizzare records broken included “most people to blow up balloons in one room,” “most people singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ with one hand on their foot” and “most people bouncing balls together.”
Spectators, although not allowed on the floor, witnessed the mayhem from the stands of Memorial Coliseum.
“The event looks great. There’s a really great turnout so far,” said sophomore Michelle Cappy, who came to support her sisters in Pi Beta Phi sorority. “I can’t believe that this many people came out to support such a great cause and raise so much money. I couldn’t be prouder of our community.”
Also present were members of the National Guard, who provided security and kept the dancers where they were supposed to be.
“We had the option to go to this or go to our regular drill weekend,” said Dakota Lawler, a UK nursing student and member of the National Guard. “We chose to come here just because it’s an awesome, awesome event.”
The National Guard also helped ensure a safe environment for children from the clinic, who visited throughout the marathon.
A group of nurses from the Kentucky Children’s Hospital got on stage and danced with a two-time cancer survivor, 16-year-old Whitney Alford.
“She asked us if we would wobble,” said nurse Andrea Nichols. “There was no way we’d say no.”
Alford was 9 when she was first diagnosed with cancer and then relapsed in the summer of 2011.
“My nurses have been so great to me during my time when I was suffering through my chemo treatments that I thought it would be a fun idea to have them involved in one of the biggest events of the year,” Alford said.
The nurses appreciated the opportunity to participate in DanceBlue, Nichols said.
“When we take care of them they are at their worst, we dry their tears and pick up the hair off of their pillows when it falls out,” Nichols said. “So it’s really great to see them here having fun.”
Alford is now cancer-free but has to continue chemotherapy until November.
The nurses and Alford wore shirts that said “Wobble for Whitney” and had signs on their backs with phrases such as, “Cancer Sucks,” “Kids Rock,” and “Whitney = 2, Cancer = 0.”
Alford said the banners hanging on the walls of the gymnasium, created by the teams to show their support for the children of the clinic, were important to the kids.
“I think it means a lot to them; I know it means a lot to me, seeing my name up there,” Alford said. “It just means that someone else cares about what we have to go through, the heartaches that we go through.”
Maxwell Elementary School donated $6,030 after holding its own mini-DanceBlue.
“My daughter took the idea with help from some of the DanceBlue committee members and had a dance marathon for the cause at her elementary school,” said Meredith Nathaniel, the mother of 8-year-old cancer survivor Crosby Nathaniel.
Meredith Nathaniel said the marathon is not just fun for the dancers, but the kids as well.
“They love it, the dancers and clinic workers immediately gravitate to the children and love on them,” she said. “My kids didn’t want to leave.”
Nathaniel said she saw many familiar faces at the clinic and at DanceBlue.
“They see these kids sometimes year after year and see them grow,” she said. “Unfortunately we see over the years that we lose some, that some lose the battle with cancer. I think that’s part of
what motivates these kids who are dancing.”
The money going toward research is the most important result of the marathon, Nathaniel said.
There were few dry eyes in the crowd as a tribute video, featuring the song “Ronan” by Taylor Swift, showed the faces and names of some of the children who have lost the battle with cancer.
“The goal is not to have a memorial hour, to quit losing these sweet little babies,” Nathaniel said. “That’s why they do it.”
The money raised by DanceBlue in the past has helped make the clinic a more welcoming place, Nathaniel said.
“When you walk in you are shell-shocked, devastated and broken,” she said. “If it is a nice place where you feel comfortable. … I just can’t imagine what it would be like if it wasn’t comfortable.”
Crosby Nathaniel weighed in on DanceBlue from a kid’s perspective.
“I think this is really cool and fun,” he said.
After the total was announced, both Meredith and Crosby Nathaniel sported wide smiles.
“I can’t thank them enough,” she said. “They are the most amazing people to raise all this money. I’m almost speechless.”
The founder of DanceBlue, Jennifer Mynear, showed her gratitude to those dancing.
“We had a dream and we believed in you guys. We believed that the student body was more than going out and partying,” Mynear said. “Look at what all you all have achieved.”