It takes more than caffeine to keep a thousand sweaty, tired and aching college students dancing for thirty hours straight. Motivating participants to stay on their feet for the entirety of Dance Marathon is no easy task. NUDM productions chairs SESP senior Lizzie Kreitman and McCormick Andrew Sonta, with the help of a team of more than 50 committee members, spend months before the big event crafting the perfect 30-hour playlist.
“We’re trying to make people feel good,” Kreitman said. “If your feet hurt, and your body hurts and you’re tired, you want to at least be listening to something that will pump you up.”
Creating a playlist that will last for more than an entire day is a true art form that requires time, thought and teamwork. However, when the dancers walk into the tent on March 6, the music will be playing and won’t stop until the last dancer leaves the floor.
The process begins with a spreadsheet, divided into ten sections for the ten different three-hour blocks of NUDM, each with its own theme. Past themes have included “British Invasion” and “Cowboys and Aliens.” After the productions committee decides on the block themes, members suggest songs that compliment the categories.
In order to ensure that the music not only goes along well with the themes but will also boost dancers’ energy, the committee works with a professional DJ, Jay Sims, who has DJed for the event since he was a junior at Northwestern in 1996.
“He sort of knows the flow of Dance Marathon better than anyone currently working on Dance Marathon,” Sonta said. “We sort of work with him to fill the voids where the block theme music that we’ve come up with doesn’t – isn’t going to really do it for everyone.”
Throughout the 30 hours, the DJ takes the list of songs that the productions committee has compiled into account, but also responds to the energy of the dancers to keep their blood pumping and feet moving. Sims doesn’t take song requests from participants during NUDM, because “if we did take requests throughout the 30 hours, it would turn into chaos,” Sonta explained. Still, the DJ plays a wide variety of genres and artists.
“This is my 19th year in a row doing Dance Marathon, so I have a lot of history of songs that have worked well at different moments of Dance Marathon,” Sims said. “My first priority is to try to put songs in the blocks that have to do with the themes.” If the energy level dips, Sims plays what he calls “wooh” songs – songs that will make dancers scream “wooh” and join in.
Kreitman and Sonta explained that the majority of the songs played during Dance Marathon are new and widely popular. “I think that people want to hear the music that they’ve been listening to all year,” Kreitman said. “People want to hear music that they know all the words to so they can sing along.”
When dancers grow tired of hearing top-40 hits, the music selection becomes more eclectic. Chunks of pop music will be broken up with Disney classics and nineties nostalgia. "'Circle of Life’ will most likely play,” Kreitman said. Dancers can also look forward to some Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys in the mix.
Still, Sonta and Kreitman admitted that the most difficult part of organizing the music for Dance Marathon is keeping everyone engaged and excited, despite the forces tempting them to quit. Though dancers are enthusiastic at the start, their energy often wanes as the hours pass. “They sort of get tired. Then they get their second wind,” Sonta said. “Then they get tired. Then they get their third wind, fourth wind, fifth wind.”
But the music keeps playing and the dancers keep dancing. The playlist is not set in stone at the beginning of NUDM; it changes in order to meet the needs of the dedicated participants.
“Dance Marathon isn’t a playlist that someone presses play and it sort of cycles through. That just wouldn’t work,” Sonta said.
Kreitman agreed. “It’s like a living, breathing thing.”