Letter to the Editor: Dance Marathon is a biodome of oppressive systems

Every year, Dance Marathon committee members take over The Rock, Norris University Center and other spaces throughout campus to encourage members of the Northwestern student body to fundraise an expected minimum of $400 to dance for 30 hours in a tent. This tent, this event, this culture of Dance Marathon is a biodome that self-produces systems of oppression, colonial undertones and elitist exclusiveness. A biodome is a self-sustaining ecosystem, and the culture surrounding Dance Marathon continues to perpetuate these harmful systems under the guise of “promoting impactful change,” but allows those who participate to continue to ignore the harmful impact that Dance Marathon actually has. If this comes as a surprise to you in anyway, then please check your privilege at the door and read on.

Dance Marathon perpetuates systems of oppression through the many instances of exclusivity in all forms — many of the dancers are white, Greek-affiliated, able-bodied and affluent. The majority of dancers in Dance Marathon are involved in Greek life and that should not be shocking, but the most important thing is to question why.

The price of Dance Marathon thus excludes low-income students, as well as students that cannot afford the time or emotional energy to fundraise. While there are many resources, including the SES One Form, Trivia events and other programming available to students who are unable to raise the money, this does not take away from the fact it costs an expected $400 dollars to dance in the first place. The gap of wealth is even more apparent as you hear the list of students and student groups who raise more than the $400 amount. These individuals and teams are announced on the Dance Marathon stage and have their photos posted online on the Dance Marathon website. Currently, the top individual fundraiser has raised $13,916 dollars, or rather the price of 34 dancers to dance. The top team (with 158 members) has raised $101,460 — the price of 253 dancers to dance.

Dance Marathon is a way that Greek members can flaunt their wealth and privilege. Naturally, the ease of fundraising comes along with the Greek-centered teams who participate. When an individual is a part of a team, fundraising becomes a lot easier because the funds of one individual can be easily distributed to all dancers. Meaning, an individual who is not a part of a team has a harder time finding resources and pulling together money for the $400 expected price; this in itself can be an isolating experience.

The ways in which individuals talk about money makes me frustrated — a few thousand dollars is often talked about as if it were Monopoly money. From personal experience, I have seen firsthand a dancer casually express joy when someone else on her team raised $6,000 in under an hour to meet the minimum threshold for all dancers of that team to dance. Furthermore, that dancer continued to actively ignore the fact that amount of money alone can be the yearly income of a family. To this dancer, everything about Dance Marathon is OK because “now everyone has the opportunity to dance in the tent!” Ignorant comments like this response show how there is seemingly nothing more to Dance Marathon except for Dance Marathon; as consequence, the systems of oppressions continue to perpetuate in the biodome culture of Dance Marathon.

The capitalist overtones of Dance Marathon dominate the culture and the actions of the event. While Dance Marathon occurs for one weekend, the publicity, social media posts, hype and advertisement consume the campus the month prior to the event. Dance Marathon works on having more: Having more dancers, having more money, having more exposure. The exec team reaches out during the recruitment period to have as many individuals registered at once, and then continues to push dancers to dance. From personal experience, while registered for Dance Marathon I have received many emails, phone calls and even texts asking me if I am still planning on dancing. This constant badgering proves that expansion and growth are the only ways to measure success. There is no other option: Dance Marathon must sustain and expand, and do so exponentially within the biodome.

This capitalist mentality carries over to the ways in which the dancers are treated as property and as a data point. Dancing for 30 hours is physically unhealthy. Additionally, a close friend of mine who was on the the Dancer Beneficiary Relations committee for two years experienced and saw the poor treatment of dancers first hand. In fact, they noted that — at times — their jobs included policing the movement of people from stopping too long during dance blocks, preventing individuals from receiving sleep and controlling the amount of time spent in bathrooms. This leads me to believe some of these people policing the space may prioritize the aesthetic of Dance Marathon over the physical and mental well-being of participants. Dance Marathon promotes a culture that prioritizes able-bodied and mentally-well individuals while excluding those who are on the opposite side of that spectrum. To promote able-bodies and minds showcases the ways in how those who participate in this difficult feat are privileged in our society.

The culture of Dance Marathon is dissociative in the ways that it produces a harmful impact to the community at large. This dissociation branches from the interaction (or the lack thereof) with the beneficiary. I’ve spoken with dancers who could not name the beneficiary, let alone state the purpose or the community they impact.

Moreover, as time progresses, social media timelines are flooded with various Facebook and Instagram posts that are carbon copies of rehearsed responses. Majority of the posts include the same, tired message: “This year, I am participating in one of the largest student-run philanthropies in the country – Northwestern University Dance Marathon. In the fall, more than 1,000 students will register to dance for an incredible cause, and I am excited to be a part of it …” The constant bombardment of the same, constructed, rehearsed message demonstrates the ways in which some dancers have no personal connection to the cause or the mission.

Dance Marathon has implemented a program that encourages volunteering for individuals who cannot fundraise the expected $400, but does not require every dancer to volunteer their own time. There is minimal connection between the nonprofit and the dancers unless the individual wishes to get involved. Therefore, Dance Marathon brands itself as self-congratulatory. After Dance Marathon there are a myriad of Instagram posts and Facebook statuses reminiscent of the “saviors” who go on voluntourism trips. Dance Marathon is self-congratulatory in the sense that it draws attention to the $400 raised and the 30 hours danced rather than the work that the beneficiary accomplishes. A pat on the back is given and the cause is forgotten until the next beneficiary is chosen for the following year. The last moments of Dance Marathon feature the exec team standing arm-in-arm as they reveal the final amount raised. Cheers, applause, screams and tears are heard and seen among the dancers, and their work is done. The self-rehearsed posts, the lack of knowledge of the beneficiary and the lack of interaction between the dancers and the nonprofit points to how some dancers disassociate themselves from doing actual impactful work.

So what are dancers and Dance Marathon supposed to do? I would suggest being more critical of the social impact you are making not only on this campus, but in this world. Money cannot be thrown on organizations in order to fix systemic issues that are deeply entrenched in our society. That is similar to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. We must address the wound first through education, critical thought and dialogue. With these steps in mind, we can then push for a more positive and impactful way to give to the world.

Toni Akunebu, Weinberg junior

This letter has been updated to clarify that the $400 fundraising goal is an expectation for dancers, not necessarily a strict requirement.