Q&A with UI Dance Marathon Executive Director

The Daily Iowan spoke to Raginya Handoo about the upcoming “Big Event” on Feb. 3.


Gabby Drees

Dance Marathon captains participate in the captains’ line during Dance Marathon at the Iowa Memorial Union at the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The fundraiser was held virtually with limited in-person participants.

Natalie Miller, News Reporter

For the first time since 2020, the University of Iowa’s Dance Marathon will be held in-person and back to pre-COVID style.

This year’s Executive Director Raginya Handoo, a UI fourth-year student, spoke with The Daily Iowan about precautions the organization will be taking to ensure everyone is safe from COVID-19, the old and new traditions and activities that will take place, and the ways they have chosen to make Dance Marathon more inclusive.

Read the DI’s interview with Raginya Handoo below. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DI: How long have you been involved with Dance Marathon?

Handoo: With Dance Marathon as a whole, I have been involved probably since I was in high school, maybe a little bit in junior high. But with UIDM specifically, I started when I was a senior in high school. Our high school was able to partner with UIDM because we had a mini-program and got the opportunity to participate in the 24-hour big event as a senior in high school, which was super cool. And then I’ve done it all four years of college.

DI: How long have you held a major role in Dance Marathon?

Handoo: This is my first year in the Executive Director role, and last year I was the campus relations chair. A lot of that was coordinating: working with other student organizations, other groups on campus, helping a little bit with FSL, and Greek Life involvement, and also faculty and staff. The year before that, I was a committee member on the campus relations committee. So, a little bit more broad to work my way up, but this is my first year as executive director.

DI: How do you feel going into this year with Dance Marathon, as it’s the first year back to a pre-pandemic setting?

Handoo: Yes, the last time we had an in-person Dance Marathon “Big Event” would have been my freshman year, so Dance Marathon 26. It was 2020, and it was in February right before the pandemic hit. Ever since then, we’ve had two virtual events … It’s been challenging, navigating this new area, because we’re basing everything on whatever we remember that happened our freshman year.

Many of us who are not only executives, but even our entire leadership team have never really experienced a “Big Event” in person, except for when we were freshmen. They were dancers and as dancers, you only know a little of what’s going on behind the scenes or the planning. We’re doing our best, relying a lot on our advisors and alumni, and just a lot of the groups we work with … we’ve been well supported, which is always positive and always great to have, but it’s exciting.

I can tell a lot of the anticipation is building with not only our leadership team, but dancers because you see all these crazy, incredible pictures and videos, but no one’s experienced that in a while. So, there is a high expectation, but I think we can reach it.

DI:  How are you planning to keep families and dancers safe during Dance Marathon with COVID-19 still present?

Handoo: Last year, we had some type of mask requirement for Dance Marathon. This year, we’ve recently lifted that given the state of everything, but the rule and expectation that we’ve set within our organization for all of our members, regardless of if they’re leadership, dancers, community partners, or sponsors, if you’re sick, you’re not coming. So, if you test positive for the flu, COVID-19, or whatever it may be, you’re not coming.

It’s also even if you’re not testing positive, but you have a head cold, some type of viral infection, the sniffles, sore throat, or whatever it may be because while it’s maybe just one to three days for us, it could be extremely detrimental to kids and families if they are immunocompromised. That’s been an exact issue that we’ve set all year.

Another expectation that we’ve said is we will have masks, hand sanitizer, and things like that provided everywhere at the “Big Event.” One of the biggest things is if you are interacting with a family member, or a kiddo especially, or even another person in Dance Marathon, like a dancer or leadership member if they’re wearing a mask, that you respect their choice, and you put on a mask as well.

DI: What’s going to be different at Dance Marathon 29?

Handoo: We’re bringing back many of our traditions that we’ve lost throughout the years. Lots of things we couldn’t replicate or mimic during a virtual year. We’re trying to turn back to the in-person stuff. During the COVID virtual years, it was nice because we got a bit of a reset. We got to talk more closely with our leadership members and dancers to survey them and really understand what they want out of Dance Marathon, what’s not needed, or where there is a need that we can fill.

We want to make sure that there’s accommodations, if necessary, for everybody to enjoy Dance Marathon. One of the things we’re doing this year is we have a morale dance we show every year, and our captains go up and perform it every hour. This year, we are also making a video that is an accommodated version of this morale dance because it’s something that people typically want to learn at the big event, and we have the opportunity for everyone to learn it….We’re also trying to pull in more student organization involvement this year to foster that partnership, so other student organizations will be performing at our big event, a lot of the performative ones, like dance groups and singing groups.

Additionally, the classic “Kiddo Graduation” or “Halfway There” they’ve always been a tradition. We’re making little tweaks based on what we have heard and the feedback we’ve received, while still staying true to Dance Marathon and keeping those traditions that everybody knows and loves.

RELATED: 2022 Dance Marathon works to increase accessibility through organizational changes

DI: What is on your list of priorities for this year?

Handoo: The families and the kiddos are always at the front of that list, but I think one of the coolest things this year with the opportunity of bringing back that in-person event is we’re essentially rebuilding Dance Marathon and kind of rebranding what we’re about. I know, in the past, there’s been a lot of stigmas, and maybe some negative views about Dance Marathon.

During this time off, when we were virtual, I feel we really got the opportunity to have a seat, dig down, and kind of change some of those things. I’m hoping as the “Big Event” comes around and people are able to engage, the public is able to see what it’s like.

We’re also keeping the traditions that everybody loves, it’s always that balancing act. We’re going to make the atmosphere super hype, super exciting, and a great place to be for everybody, not just those who have the best ability to enjoy it.

DI: How much are you expecting or hoping to raise?

Handoo: Honestly, I can’t give you an estimate. A lot of it comes at the last minute, and we just don’t know what to expect until the day of. Obviously, we’re always trying to raise as much money as we can for the kiddos and the families, but ultimately, at the end of the day, $1 raised for them is $1 that wasn’t there before and it’s $1 that’s going to make an impact.

I try not to focus too much on the numbers in the fundraising, but essentially, at our core, we are a fundraising organization. The message I think we’ve really tried to get across to our members this year is whatever that total or number is, at the end of the day, that’s all of your hard work that you put into it. It doesn’t matter if it was more than you expected or less than you expected.

DI: Was there a big difference in fundraising amounts between your in-person, freshman year and when you were virtual?

Handoo: I think my freshman year, we raised about $2.8 million, and then going into the virtual years, my sophomore year, I think it was around $1.6 million and then just this last year, it was $1.4 million. It definitely took a hit, and a lot of it also had to do with having significantly fewer participants in Dance Marathon as well.

Also, due to the pandemic and virtual things, it’s always hard to recruit people when they can’t come in person, so that was definitely difficult. But with the leadership team that was smaller than normal and recruitment numbers smaller than normal, it was pretty impressive that they’re able to put up some of those numbers as well. It’ll be cool to see what happens this year.

DI: Do you have future goals moving forward with Dance Marathon?

Handoo: Yes. One of the things we were able to fund this year was a professorship position. That was a $1.5 million promise that we made to start, so that means that another provider will be able to be up on level 11 and be treating some of these kiddos and families. That is obviously a long-term promise that we plan on keeping, so we’ll continue to fund that throughout the years.

Additionally, one of the things that we did this year was cut our fundraising registration prices in half. A lot of the feedback we received from people was $50 to register and a $500 minimum is hard. It’s an obstacle that a lot of people can’t go over, and rightfully so there’s very valid reasons for that.

Sometimes, when you’re in some of these leadership or executive positions, it’s really hard to see that perspective as a dancer. $500, that’s almost what I pay in rent every month, so it’s really hard to balance your life as a college student and raise $500. We really wanted to take steps and remove some of those barriers and make changes so that more people feel like they can join, spread out, and be part of the movement without feeling like they can’t do it because the $500 minimum is that much.

This year, the registration fee was only $25 and we had a $250 minimum, so we completely cut them in half. We saw great registration numbers this year and we’ve heard great feedback from people about how this is much more attainable, they didn’t even realize how easy it was to fundraise $250.

There’s also lots of different partnerships that we’ve gotten to rebuild or even create this year with different community partners. We always have a really great partnership with the 1k, 2k, 5k, Chicago Marathon, and different organizations like that. We’re hoping to see those areas grow and people get back into that spirit of engaging the community, not just the University of Iowa campus, which will be super cool.

It’ll really be up to the future teams to decide what they want to do, but we’re hoping that DM 29 is setting them up for success and setting them up to give them the options to choose all of these things.