Dancing at a distance: University of Iowa Dance Marathon raises $1.4 million

Although COVID-19 has limited in-person connection for the fundraiser, each “why” from families and students continues to instill purpose within Dance Marathon 27 participants.


Tate Hildyard

Dance marathon Morale Captains dance alone in the Iowa Memorial Union on Saturday, February 27th, 2021. Due to the pandemic, the annual charity event which normally packs the entire building, has been converted to a digital live stream leaving the Iowa Memorial Union nearly empty.

Grace Hamilton and Drew Sullivan

As the University of Iowa’s biggest fundraiser for pediatric cancer patients — Dance Marathon — wrapped up this weekend without hundreds of singing, dancing students packed in the Iowa Memorial Union, participants, organizers, and families say the organization’s 27th “Big Event” still had an emotional impact.

Tiffany Schmidt is the mother of Carter Schmidt, a four-and-a-half-year-old boy with big blue glasses and a passion for cars, trains, and all things engineering. Carter is a social butterfly who loves playing with his friends from preschool and church, his mom said.

One day, Carter got very ill and stopped eating. He began sleeping more than usual and his parents became concerned, Schmidt said. At his nine-month checkup, the doctors ran a blood test.

“They came back an hour and a half later and said, ‘You might want to sit down for this one,’ and that’s when I knew it was serious,” Schmidt said.

Carter was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia that only affects one in 1.2 million people. The family immediately went to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital for treatment, where they met dancers and organizers for Dance Marathon.

Tiffany and her husband, Michael, were young parents attending college when Carter was diagnosed. Schmidt said Dance Marathon helped relieve the emotional and financial stress of parenting a child with cancer on top of student expenses.

“We were so emotionally numb being in that room all the time that people just gave us a hand. I could go get coffee, I could walk downstairs just to get out with my husband, and it was just amazing,” Schmidt said. “I remember the warm feeling whenever we’d get a comfort card because money was tight.”

Schmidt said her and her husband’s favorite memory of Dance Marathon is from a meeting for post-cancer patients when two-and-a half-year-old Carter was given the microphone.

“Carter just loved the mic,” Schmidt said. “He was talking and talking the whole time, and it was just really sweet, then everyone would clap, and he would go ‘Yay!’ He was so precious.”

Carter currently has no trace of disease, she said. Her family is beyond thankful for Dance Marathon, Schmidt said, and will continue to participate in its events.

Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19 this year, Dance Marathon raised $1.4 million for Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

Dance Marathon participants are passionate about helping families such as the Schmidts.

UI freshman Lila Terry said Dance Marathon helped her pick her college path. She’s glad it shaped her academic journey despite its virtual format this year.

“When I was deciding what school to go to, I applied for a leadership position for Dance Marathon at the University of Iowa,” Terry said. “When I got that, my decision was completely made, and I decided to go there.”

Since Terry’s sophomore year at Iowa City West High School, she’s participated in Dance Marathon at the university. This year, she served on Dance Marathon 27’s Operations Committee, and  although the fundraiser’s Big Event was held virtually, Terry said her participation remains worthwhile because of the families she’s helping.

“Everything we do is for a family, so even if it’s all online what’s important is that we’re still getting out here and raising money,” she said.

Other dancers have first-hand experience as a patient at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

After two stays at UIHC, UI Freshman and Dance Marathon Ambassador Megan Triplett said she felt compelled to join Dance Marathon to help other patients and their families.

“I love the children’s hospital. I’ve had to stay there myself, and I think it’s incredible how much they’re able to help kiddos and their families,” Triplett said. “I was able to go up on the twelfth floor and just kind of imagine the whole wave thing. It’s just such an incredible place with such incredible people.”

Last spring, Dance Marathon 27 announced its yearly campaign “Rise with Resilience.” Since the campaign’s birth, Executive Director Elizabeth Jackson continues to reflect on how Dance Marathon families embody strength.

“A very popular spark word this year has been resilience,” Jackson said. “But for our families, they’ve been resilient as they received a diagnosis, got treatment, entered remission, or lost their child. The epitome of resilience is to have to go through all those challenges.”