The making of 'Why We Dance': Documentary captures the story of THON

By Hilary Appelman and Kathy Andrusisin

All Jeff Hughes knew about THON was that it was “a really cool thing.”

“I was aware of THON when I was a Penn State student, but all I thought of was this weekend in February,” said Hughes, executive producer of the Penn State Public Broadcasting documentary “Why We Dance: The Story of THON.” “I had no idea that 15,000 students are involved in this every year. I had no idea that it lasted all year.”

The documentary chronicles a year of preparations for the renowned fundraising and dance marathon put on each year by Penn State students -- preparations that start as soon the previous year’s THON wraps up. The filmmakers captured everything from the selection of officers to canning weekends -- when more than 7,000 students fan out along the East Coast to raise money -- to the 46-hour dance marathon itself. THON raised a record $10.69 million this year for the fight against childhood cancer.

Hughes and Cole Cullen, who directed and produced the documentary, previously worked together on “Making the Blue Band,” a film about students trying out for the Penn State marching band. THON, with its cast of thousands and the more than $89 million students have raised over the event’s 40-year history, was a natural sequel.

“These are the great stories of Penn State,” said Hughes.

Four Diamond families

The money THON raises goes to the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides support for families of children with cancer and cancer research at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. The documentary tells the story of THON through the eyes of one Four Diamonds family -- the family of 13-year-old Bryce Carter of Hummelstown, Pa. After a tumor was found on Bryce’s femur, he underwent chemotherapy, followed by surgery to remove the tumor and reconstruct his leg, and still more chemotherapy.

Before they even began filming, the filmmakers spent months with the Carters, building a relationship with the family. “We wanted them to be comfortable sharing very personal things with us,” said Hughes. “You have to build up the trust.”

Bryce Carter is expected to recover fully, but Cullen and Hughes said they expect the family’s connection with THON to continue. “I think they’re going to be involved in Four Diamonds for years,” Hughes said.

Student involvement

THON is almost exclusively run by students, and students also played a role in the making of the documentary. “It’s impressive to look at everything that happens and realize there are so few adults that have anything to do with it,” Cullen said. Aside from one faculty adviser, “everything comes from the students.”

Matt Tolerico of Jermyn, Pa., was one of two Penn State telecommunications majors involved in the production as interns. Tolerico, who volunteered with THON for three years and was a dancer in 2012, was involved with the production during the development phase -- providing filmmakers with a student perspective, helping find stories to cover, and taking part in fundraising calls and visits.

“I love working with nonprofits, and I have an interest in television programming, so this just made me want to do these more in the future,” said Tolerico, who graduated in May.

Torie Grice of Columbia, Pa. was involved with THON even before coming to Penn State, having chaired the mini-THON at Hempfield High School. As a production intern for the documentary, Grice went back to the mini-THON last spring, this time with a camera in hand.

Grice also helped edit video footage of Bryce Carter and his family and from the filmmakers’ visits to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “This really opened my eyes to the pre-production aspect of making documentaries,” she said.

Having students on the production team helped the producers build a relationship with the students who run THON. “It took a while to get them to let us into everything,” said Hughes. “We had to prove ourselves. They had to believe we were in this for the right reasons.”

More than a cool thing to do

For many of its student organizers, THON is a full-time job that they juggle on top of schoolwork and daily college life. There are THON-related events -- hayrides, carnivals, tailgates, visits with kids with cancer -- every month of the year. No detail is left to chance -- from scrubbing out the cans used to collect money to organizing student visits to the Medical Center in Hershey to delivering mail to the dancers at THON itself.

Some students first get involved in THON because it’s “the cool thing to do,” said Cullen. But as the year goes on, they realize the significance of what they’re doing, he said. “They get in and they get bit by the bug … and the next year they’re on a committee and the next year they’re a captain. I like to say that it’s the perfect storm of a good cause and cool.”

After more than a year working on the project, the documentary team had full access by the time THON weekend finally rolled around. That final Sunday, a film crew was allowed to join a select group of THON organizers in the room where the final tally of donations was made.

“They all gather around the laptop with an Excel sheet and they hit ‘Enter,’ ” said Cullen. “They all put their finger on the Enter button at the same time. Then they have to keep that number -- that everyone has been waiting for -- to themselves until the big reveal on stage. It’s quite overwhelming.”

Not just a Penn State Story

Someone once said that fall at Penn State is football and the rest of the year is THON, said Hughes. “We are THON, practically -- it’s that connected.”

But the story of THON transcends the University, the filmmakers said.

“Whether or not you’re related to Penn State, you will be moved by this,” said Tom Yourchak, director of development for Penn State Public Broadcasting. “This is a bright shining spot -- teaching students when they work together they can make a tremendous difference in so many lives.”

Tom Whitehead of Philipsburg, Pa., whose 7-year-old daughter Emily was treated for leukemia at Penn State Hershey, summed it up another way.

“Any time we do anything with THON,” he said, “it takes the cancer away for a while.”

“Why We Dance: The Story of THON” premiered Thursday (Sept. 27) on WPSU-TV, on public television stations across Pennsylvania and online at http://wpsu.org.

For more information and to watch video trailers, visit http://wpsu.org/thondocumentary. The full one-hour documentary is now archived for viewing indefinitely on both WPSU's YouTube channel and on Penn State Public Broadcasting's Vimeo site.

 

Last Updated October 16, 2012