Between March 4 and March 6, more than 800 Northwestern students participated in trivia bowls, TikTok challenges, yoga classes and various other virtual events, all of which were a part of a 2021 Dance Marathon characterized by less dancing than usual.
Founded in 1975, the student organization Northwestern University Dance Marathon (NUDM) spends each year fundraising for a beneficiary. Since the early 1980s, their annual efforts have culminated in a “Dance Marathon,” in which thousands of dancers crowd into a large tent and dance for 30 consecutive hours.
However, due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the campus-wide movement to abolish Northwestern Greek life associated with the National Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council, the 2021 Dance Marathon underwent a number of changes to adhere to pandemic safety guidelines and distance itself from Greek life. NUDM de-emphasized its traditional team fundraising system, took place remotely and was restructured to incorporate a mixture of dancing and other bonding activities spread over the course of three days.
“It was definitely strange to do the whole thing online, especially since I’ve never participated in an in-person one,” says Medill first-year Alexa Crowder, who serves on NUDM’s Marketing and Media Committee. “Our two emcees danced on a livestream from a stage on campus each of the three nights, [but] I didn’t do too much myself because I was alone in my room across the country.”
This new format was more interactive than the 2020 Dance Marathon, which consisted of a series of videos that students could watch on their own time, due to Northwestern administration’s cancellation of the live event three days prior.
“We were sad that work putting up a tent and planning for the entire marathon was going to go to waste,” says Cami Steppe, a SESP fourth- year and NUDM executive co-chair. “Looking back, it was obviously the right decision to happen a year ago to keep everyone in our community safe.”
This year, even with more preparation time, NUDM executive members found that planning a virtual event made it difficult to connect with and recruit students. Rather than advertise to potential dancers in dining halls and dorms, NUDM turned to social media and outreach via student organizations.
“It has been a really challenging year for fundraising, if we’re being honest, as it has been with every nonprofit organization we’ve talked to,” Steppe says. “We have fewer dancers than we usually have, but that’s expected.”
NUDM participants raised a total of $674,375, most of which will be donated to Compass to Care, a Chicago- based organization that supports the families of children with cancer. Even though this total is lower than last year ’s $1,029,366, Ayesha Goswamy, a Weinberg fourth-year and executive co- chair of NUDM, is unsurprised.
“Although this is slightly smaller than years past, we were still proud of the people we were able to engage,” Goswamy says. “Our numbers also showed that, on average, we fundraised more per dancer than in the past. We were happy with how the event went and that people attended our events even through the Zoom fatigue of classes and meetings.”
She attributes the fundraising difference to the pandemic, the virtual format and NUDM’s changes in response to the movement to abolish Greek life. Ever since the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity co-founded NUDM alongside the Associated Student Government, NUDM has had a close relationship with Greek life. However, in recent years, NUDM has been open to altering this relationship.
“We’re really excited about making substantial change in tandem with the Abolish Greek Life movement,” Steppe says. “We are proud that Northwestern has really faced the Greek system head- on and is dealing with all the issues that Greek life brings to campus... In seeing all these conversations, we were like, ‘We cannot continue to support these Greek organizations in the way we have in the past.’”
Among these changes is the implementation of a flexible fundraising goal. In previous years, dancers had a $400 minimum fundraising goal; this year, they were encouraged to set their own target and simply raise as much as they could. Although NUDM’s executive board was concerned that this might lower their overall fundraising total, they agreed it would benefit dancers from low-income backgrounds and those impacted by the pandemic.
“Everyone is in such a different place financially this year, and we just don’t want anyone to have the additional stressor of DM fundraising,” Goswamy says. “We want DM fundraising to be a positive experience, and we believe that any amount that they could contribute to our beneficiary is having a positive impact.”
Aside from the new flexible fundraising goal, NUDM also altered its traditional fundraising structure, which previously allowed Greek organizations to fundraise in large teams. To encourage the breakdown of these teams, NUDM asked them to change their names rather than entering under the name of a Greek organization. Multicultural Greek organizations and student organizations were also invited to form teams, and NUDM allowed solo dancers unaffiliated with Greek life or a participating student organization to join the Northwestern University Team.
“Everyone just followed [the team] structure because it was the norm,” says Medill fourth-year Lindsey Lubowitz, the co-chair of NUDM’s Marketing and Media committee. “The big teams were usually the Greek teams, but this year, there’s a lot less team structure, and the teams are a lot smaller.”
According to a member of the @abolishnugreeklife Instagram page, which posts anonymous students’ experiences within Greek life, large Greek life teams are a problem for NUDM.
“Teams are a huge part of raising money and creating a community within Dance Marathon,” the member says. “It can create peer pressure because the teams are so dependent on Greek life... that participating in Dance Marathon without being in Greek life can feel a little isolating, or the social pressures to participate along with Greek life are greater.”
The @abolishnugreeklife member is glad to see that NUDM is making an effort to break up these teams. Despite the difficulties of abolishing Greek life entirely, they are hopeful that NUDM’s changes can help deconstruct the myth that having a social life is dependent on joining Greek life.
“One big solution and something that’s actually attainable is separating the dependency of social life from Greek life,” the member says. “A lot of Northwestern’s campus is run as if Greek life is the only place to find community, and I think Dance Marathon has been an example of that... To step away from [NUDM] being so interconnected with Greek life, they’re opening areas of community and other ways to socialize that aren’t tied to Greek life, and I think that’s something that’s really great.”
The member is optimistic about NUDM’s ability to detach itself from Greek life given its smaller community scale, as opposed to the national structure of PHA and IFC Greek life that makes reform difficult.
“In that kind of structure, you see a lack of agency and power on individual members’ parts, [which] is one of the main reasons why we truly believe reform isn’t possible,” the member says. “That being said, other organizations function very differently. Dance Marathon is run by students at Northwestern specifically, so... there’s a lot more power to make changes.”
Goswamy makes a similar distinction between NUDM and Greek life, explaining that while the two organizations share some members, they remain separate.
“At our core, we are an organization committed to philanthropic fundraising, service and spreading awareness to the Northwestern community,” Goswamy says. “This can exist outside of Greek life, and our organization is actively working to make it so.”