SOUTH GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – The 710 students from South Glens Falls High School danced for more than a day: Conga lines, "Gangnam Style," giddy-ups, hand jives and the "Harlem Shake." Then, flushed and weary, the teens showed why this is a dance marathon with a difference.
Students cleared a path for a group who walked or were wheeled to the stage set at one end of the gym. One by one — a woman battling cancer in a stocking cap, mothers of ailing children, car crash survivors — thanked the teenage dancers who just raised almost $500,000 to help them tackle life's challenges.
"When a community comes together to help lift financial stress, which allows a child to get the proper care and have the best chance in life, that's priceless," Kate LaFoy told the hushed crowd in a choked voice. Her 15-month-old daughter Alessandra has Turner Syndrome, a genetic condition. "You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? You're part of our village now. We are forever grateful."
South Glens Falls High School students donated the hefty sum to LaFoy and 39 other recipients by dancing around the clock this weekend as part of an annual event in this small, weathered village just south of New York's Adirondack Mountains.
The dance marathon was started in 1978, the age of turntables and disco. It has morphed into a monster event consuming not only the students, but the community. Kids go door-to-door seeking donations, sponsor pancake breakfasts, collect bottles and lean on family, friends and neighbors to pitch in. Locals — many who fondly remember their own dancing days — help direct traffic, donate goods for auction, paint faces or cut hair to raise money.
And they open their wallets — something not so easily done in this village of about 3,500 souls still struggling to find its economic footing. Paper mills once powered by the Hudson River have shuttered and residents have a median household income of $47,587, lagging behind the national figure of $52,762.
The weekend's record $489,716 easily topped the $395,352 collected last year, maintaining a trend of growing tallies. Some well-heeled colleges raise money into the seven figures with their annual dance marathons but you'd be hard-pressed to find any high schoolers pulling in this kind of dough.
"You're raised in the South Glens Falls community, you're expected to dance in the marathon dance," said senior Carly Weller, a member of the student committee that organizes the dance and selects recipients, all local. "And after you do it once, you're hooked."
This dance marathon is different from the old endurance contests in which the last exhausted couple on the floor escapes the tap on the shoulder to win. The teenage dancers get a couple of hours to sleep, plenty of food and drinks and some other breaks from Friday night to Saturday night. There are costume parades and opportunities to chill out on the gym floor.
But it's still grueling.
"Definitely sleep during sleep break, drink lots of water, (use) deodorant," said senior Blake Snyder. "Deodorant is key. And change your socks every time you can because if your feet are comfortable, you're comfortable."
Students get by not only on adrenaline, but the knowledge that they are contributing to something larger in their community, said art teacher Tom Myott, an adviser for the marathon. Myott said the marathon's mission has been consistent since he was a student dancer three decades ago. Now it's his daughter's turn: freshman Mackenzie Myott danced her first marathon this weekend.
The 40 recipients chosen by students this year include children and adults fighting potentially fatal illnesses, a family recovering after a house fire and a local food pantry.
"The money will come in very handy," said Kristina Lemery, whose 4-year-old son Lukas has a brain tumor. "The bills are still coming in the mail and it seems that it's never ending."
As Lukas bounced around a school room set aside for recipients, Lemery explained Lukas still faces potential peril and that he is blind in one eye.
"The tumor might grow back, he might need another surgery. He might need chemo. Right now we just take it day by day. ... So it's really nice that in such hard times, there's something joyful."
Lemery was among the recipients who lined up in the gym to say a few words to the dancers and the families packing the stands at the end of the marathon Saturday night.
The thanks were as profuse as the tears.
Then the grand total was announced. The marathon was over and the dancers melted into each other's arms.
"Physically I'm exhausted. Emotionally I'm exhausted," Weller said. "But I've never been as happy in my life. "