Examining the "Activism" Behind Dance Marathon

Dance Marathon is an extremely popular organization on many college campuses which holds events to fundraise for local Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. The largest event held on college campuses annually is the Dance Marathon, where dancers will participate in an hours-long dance party after having fundraised from friends, family and others on campus. At Saint Louis University (SLU), Dance Marathon is one of the largest on-campus organizations and raises money for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals of Greater St. Louis. This year’s Dance Marathon events were held virtually; during most years, there will be dozens of Dance Marathon members tabling around campus, posting on social media and fundraising for their cause. Dance Marathon’s slogan is "FTK," which stands for “For The Kids.”

According to their mission statement, SLU Dance Marathon looks to carry out SLU’s Jesuit mission to work “for the greater good.” On the surface, the intentions of Dance Marathon seem selfless and mobilize hundreds of students to fundraise for a meaningful cause. Dance Marathon is undoubtedly a noble cause because its efforts provide help to struggling children and their families. However, Dance Marathon is also subject to criticism that each member should consider before participating.

The criticism involved in participation in Dance Marathon concerns privilege in facets such as money and able-bodiedness. Are participants motivated by helping children with severe illnesses, or just attending a social event, getting a T-shirt, and posting on Instagram with their friends? Finally, is the relationship between Dance Marathon and the children with severe illness exploitative to increase membership?


Do you acknowledge the financial privilege behind Dance Marathon?

First, Dance Marathon involves an entrance fee to attend the event and this, in itself, is a barrier to attendance for some students. Second, the efforts behind Dance Marathon are primarily in fundraising. Some Dance Marathons (campus dependent) also have minimum fundraising requirements. Also, an increased donation is incentivized. 

Thus, if you come from a more advantageous financial background, you are much more easily able to participate in Dance Marathon. It’s likely that the entrance fee and minimum fundraising amounts will not be an issue for you. Further, being from a higher socioeconomic status means that your friends and family would likely be more able to donate to your efforts. 

In addition, Dance Marathon is largely correlated with participation in Greek Life. Greek Life is incredibly exclusionary and costly, thus favoring participation from individuals with a higher socioeconomic status. Exclusivity is innate to Dance Marathon.


Do you support Dance Marathon’s use of ableist language? 

A slogan associated with Dance Marathon events is to “stand for those who can’t,” which contains undeniably ableist sentiment. As of April 3, 2021, the “About” section of SLU Dance Marathon’s Facebook says, “At the end of every year, students stand, for those who can’t, at a 12-hour celebration of the year’s success and every obstacle that patients in pediatric hospitals must overcome.”

This slogan is problematic in nature because it implies that all children being supported by Dance Marathon are paralyzed, which is not the case for many. Further, the verbiage in the slogan says to stand “for” those who can’t stand—as opposed to “with” or “in solidarity with”—reinforcing the ableist sentiment. Standing is not a prerequisite for quality of life. 

Secondly, this slogan is exclusionary to disabled members of the SLU community who have conditions that limit their mobility. An organization that works to raise awareness for childhood medical conditions should absolutely be an ally to the disabled community on campus and heed their input concerning supporting children with severe medical conditions. Using a slogan that labels standing as a requisite to supporting Children’s Miracle Network actively excludes the disabled community from participating in Dance Marathon.


Do you just want merch?  

Those who participate in Dance Marathon share a strong sense of community, which is natural for those who are passionate about the same cause. On-campus at SLU, it is common to see people with sweatshirts, buttons, and hats that say “FTK.” In many ways, the organization feels similar to Greek Life with its use of letters and merchandise for publicity. 

On most campuses, signing up for Dance Marathon guarantees you a T-shirt to wear on the day of the event. In many advertisements for the club, merch is used as a bargaining chip to lure students in. In addition, high-value donations are usually awarded. It feels as though the motivation for participation is merchandise with "FTK" written on it, and not actually helping the cause. This may not be the case for every person, but some participants are only present because you get a free T-shirt. 


Does your advocacy stop when it is not tied to social events? 

The actual Dance Marathon event is a lengthy dance party with music playing, friends to dance with and fun backgrounds for photo opportunities. People wear the T-shirt they got from signing up as well as tutus, fun headbands and other costume pieces. The bulk of the fundraising is done through various facets during the weeks leading up to the event. Dance Marathon is a social event, albeit a symbolic one.

Many people in the SLU community discuss Dance Marathon in the context of making friends and building community with other clubs. While this is not necessarily a negative attribute, it blurs the intentions of Dance Marathon being “for the kids” versus “for the SLU community.” If the goal is to build community on campus, many other much more inclusive social events on campus can be utilized. 

In summary, if an advocacy event is intended to be “For The Kids,” the kids should undoubtedly be the motivator for participants. Some participants have good intentions when signing up for Dance Marathon. However, the way that Dance Marathon places importance on merchandise, letters in social media bios and having fun at a social event with friends skews what the true motivators should be.


Are the children being exploited for their illnesses? 

The money raised from each Dance Marathon benefits children with severe medical conditions in the local community where the money was raised. For each Dance Marathon, it is possible to view biographies of the children that are being helped along with a story of their condition. In many ways, Dance Marathon successfully builds relationships with the children and families.

The official Dance Marathon website highlights some of the stories of children and their conditions. These stories only provide the children’s illnesses and no other characteristics about them, which reduces them to just their diagnosis. The Dance Marathon website should seek to treat the children as people, not just their illness. In essence, efforts to help people connect with the children they are helping should not come off with a similar tone as a Sarah McLachlan commercial.


Is a savior complex fueling your advocacy? 

Dance Marathon’s efforts seek to benefit children and their families who are experiencing financial distress due to their child’s illness. These circumstances have left families extremely vulnerable and deserving of help from organizations like Dance Marathon. 

In situations, where privileged people are helping vulnerable populations, there is the risk of the savior complex. A savior complex involves a person of privileged status helping a vulnerable population in a self-serving way. A common example of a savior complex involves white people taking mission trips to “help” communities in African countries under the guise of being “selfless.” It is the kind of advocacy that ends up in an Instagram post, without realizing the damage that was done to vulnerable communities.

Crossing borders is not essential to a savior complex, as it is extremely common within cities. In cities, this is commonly the cause of the gentrification of poor urban communities by the wealthy. Thus, college students working to help vulnerable families with sick children could absolutely be motivated by a savior complex and instead have self-serving interests. Power dynamics such as savior complexes are why it is important actually have noble interests when trying to aid vulnerable communities.


Is it “For The Kids” or is it “For You”?

Plain and simple, is your participation in Dance Marathon actually “for the kids” or is it to make you feel good inside?

Would you still participate without receiving merch?

Would you still be an advocate without having a dance party with your friends?

Is your attendance at Dance Marathon to make friends or is it “For The Kids”?

How does your advocacy for childhood medical conditions go past one day a year?