09/17/2012 01:22 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Dancing My Heart Out

This past year, I bore witness to one of the greatest feats of athletic prowess and strength, a true test of fitness and dedication that not only pushed participants to their very limits, but which also united them under a common purpose. At its close, the exhausted participants celebrated together, regardless of team, unified under a single chant, "For the Kids!" I am referring, of course, to Dance Marathon.

Dance Marathon is a twelve to forty hour continuous event held at more than 150 schools around the nation. Proceeds from these marathons go to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, which work to raise funds to provide quality care for over 17 million patients across the United States. Thousands of high school and college students divide into teams and dance for hours on end, all while raising money and awareness for the Children's Miracle Network. So far, Dance Marathons have raised over $50 million.

Not only am I a fan of the Children's Miracle Network, the roommate of two very involved marathoners, and have been known to sport the iconic pink and green logo, but I have also participated in the St. Louis Dance Marathon for the past two years. Along with over a thousand of my closest friends, I sweated in the Washington University Athletic Complex from 2:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. the next day in what started as enthusiastic support, quickly altered into utter agony, and ended as one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life.

The dancer in a Dance Marathon goes through something of an emotional evolution over the course of the event. The St. Louis Dance Marathon is unique in that each hour of the twelve hour marathon is devoted to a different style of music. Disney hour, from 2:00-3:00 p.m., is characterized by singing and reenacting iconic scenes from animated Disney movies. It is an emotional high following the inspirational opening ceremonies. At this point in the marathon, I felt confident that I could dance all night.

The fall comes at hour six. After five hours of non-stop dancing, I was ready to curl up in the corner and sleep until 1990s hour. The chant "For the Kids," seemed to mock me more than motivate me, and as I struggled to keep moving, all hell broke loose -- at hour seven, they brought in a Zumba instructor.

Zumba, as it turns out, is a great way to have fun while staying in shape. However, Zumba is not so fun after six hours of dancing, and the evil Zumba lady does not seem to approve of a half-hearted samba. The only thing keeping me going at that point was the catchy beat of Shakira's "Waka Waka." I was running on fumes.

The rest of the marathon was a tired blur for me until hour twelve, which I doubt I will ever forget. Those determined few, only a hundred or so dancers who survived the day and were still somehow thinking of new dance moves,were revitalized by the thought of being so close to the end. The families of the Miracle Children, children who are being treated by Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, have all left, but there was still a sense of purpose about our tired movements. "For the Kids" no longer mocked me, because it was now my only justification for participating in something so crazy and so draining.

Finally, the marathon ended as the music died down, and we all sat on the floor, grateful to give our muscles a break. The Washington University Dance Marathon Executive Board, whose members worked for over six months to plan, educate, and fundraise across St. Louis for the event, staggered tiredly on stage to announce the total amount of money raised. That year, we raised over $150,000. The athletic complex exploded with cheers as we struggled to wrap our minds around what we had managed to accomplish.

The next day, while dragging my sore muscles to the dining hall with the intention of eating my weight in pancakes to recover, I called my mother to tell her about the event. After hearing about how tired I was, how the last few hours seemed to last twice as long, how much I hated Zumba, and how sore I was, she asked why I decided to stay for twelve hours.

That question makes a lot of sense. Why would anyone decide to dance for twelve hours, or at some schools, for as much as forty hours nonstop? Why would anyone dedicate that kind of time and energy without being paid, without being recognized, and without stopping? But after participating in these marathons, it is quite clear to me. It's for the kids.

During the opening ceremonies, the Executive Board reminds us that we dance for those who cannot. We put ourselves through pain because these brave children must bear unspeakable hardships. We come out stronger on the other side because this is what we hope will be possible for every child who turns to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals for care.

It is easy to feel, as college students, like we can't make a real and lasting difference. We theorize in our essays, we attend a protest or two, or grab a brochure from a campaign. Dancing for twelve hours is painful, but it's doing something. And although my muscles still ache every time I hear "Waka Waka," I can't wait for November 3rd to do it all over again.

If you are interested in participating in Dance Marathon, making a donation, or finding an event near you, visit their website.