More than 1,000 students will gather under a tent outside Norris University Center this weekend to dance for 30 hours for Northwestern University’s 40th annual Dance Marathon fundraising event. Tim Rivelli (Weinberg ’76) helped organize the original NUDM event in 1974 through his role as executive vice president of the Associated Student Government. Rivelli shared his memories of the humble beginnings of an event that has since become one of the largest student-run philanthropic events in the country.
During my first year at Northwestern in 1973, I was the co-chair of an Associated Student Government sub-committee called the University Community Relations Committee. The purpose of the committee was to build better community at Northwestern among the student body. At the time, Norris Center was relatively new, and the facility had not really been fully developed yet. There were very few restaurants in Evanston for students to gather. Northwestern had this great community of students and a variety of student groups, but many students felt that the university lacked a sense of community. So the focus of the community relations committee was to try to find ways to get students to work together and build a better community. The idea for Dance Marathon came from Jan Jacobowitz, who was also involved in ASG and a member of the ASG University Community Relations Committee. Jan had friends at the University of Illinois, and she visited them and participated in their dance marathon event. She thought it was awesome and suggested to me that we should do something like that at Northwestern. I was very supportive of the idea, and I thought it would be a great way to get students from all different segments—people that are living in dorms, people in fraternities and sororities—of the Northwestern community to work together on a common project.
But it took some manpower to plan and organize the event. We also needed to try to find a charity. So we met with representatives from the Epilepsy Foundation of America and later the National Association for Retarded Citizens. These charities became our first beneficiaries. We were also trying to understand where and how we might stage an event of this magnitude. We worked with University officials and received permission to hold the event in Blomquist. We had to figure out how to recruit a team of people to organize and put on the event because there were a lot of things from a facilities standpoint that needed to be done. I was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity, and I asked if they would be interested in helping. They agreed to get behind the event in a big way and figured out how to organize the music and staging and other parts of the event. We attempted to obtain donations of supplies and equipment for the event to minimize our costs and to maximize the amount we could give to the charity. We put together a structure to recruit people to be dancers. I think we had 15 couples and raised more than $9,000.
For an initial event, it was a great success. There was no playbook for us to use. We didn’t have any elaborate organization. It was a seat-of-the-pants type of thing. When you think of it in terms of getting it started, it was a lot of blind faith. We went forward hoping that we could put it on in a way that was successful, and I think the people that participated in the first event had a good time. When you fast forward to 2014, it’s inspiring to look at the scope of Dance Marathon now: more than 20 student committees, more than 1,000 dancers, an elaborate process for people who are in the charitable industry to submit their causes as potential beneficiaries.
It is clear that the Dance Marathon fulfilled the vision of building a better community within the students at Northwestern. From what I’ve seen, it’s also great way to use the talented students at NU to help others in need. NUDM clearly teaches a life lesson that it’s important: Whenever you can bind people together for a common purpose to help others who are in need, you can reach a whole new level of unity, and you can truly help people. I think it’s important for students to remember that lesson as they move forward in their careers after college and go off into the world. We all need to pay attention to others who are in need, and use our time and talent to give back to others.
When I hear the stories from the beneficiary organizations and see Northwestern students coming together to raise more than $1 million for charities, it’s so inspiring. Who could have ever dreamed that what we started in the mid-1970s would have grown into something like that? It’s amazing to think about the ripple effect of what we started in 1975 and to look at what good it has produced over the last 40 years. When people graduate from Northwestern, I am sure that they think that NUDM was one of the best things they were involved in. I’m very thankful that I was able to play a role in getting this started.