How one weekend can make a difference

Photo Courtesy: Paige Black

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, marking hour 18 of Dance Marathon. I’ve got one leg up on a handrail, balancing this laptop, attempting to put my emotions and thoughts into words. We just had the privilege of listening to the stories of some of the ambassadors. My heart aches from their stories but it is also brimming with hope. These ambassadors are kids from Camp Kindle, a beneficiary of Dance Marathon, who have either been infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. They are truly the face and heart of this cause. It takes a certain kind of strength to be able to share intimate details about the unimaginable difficulties they have faced. For them, Dance Marathon is a space where they can feel accepted and celebrated and mostly importantly, loved. Sharing their stories empowers them, while inspiring us.

As the Cause Education committee, it is our job to inform and educate others on the realities of this virus. We often cite statistics to communicate the gravity of this cause: 400 babies are born every day HIV-positive and 36.7 million people are currently living HIV. While these numbers are an important measure to gauge our progress in ending this disease, we can sometimes become distant from what they mean. Each of those numbers represents people and their stories. This year, we were fortunate enough to have an exhibit from the UCLA Art and Global Health Center called Through Positive Eyes which poignantly depicts the individual stories behind this epidemic. It is a collection of photographs from HIV-positive individuals around the world, giving them a platform and a voice through which they can express what HIV and AIDS means to them. The pictures are powerful and their stories are piercing — and it was an honor to get a glimpse into their lives. This disease and the stigma surrounding it affects the mind and the body in unimaginable ways.

So what are we doing about it? We’re raising money and we’re dancing. But we’re also teaching and we are (hopefully) inspiring. Every dancer who comes through Dance Marathon learns a little about the basics of the disease, but they are also privy to the stories that the ambassadors and many speakers share. It is a privilege, and one that no one should take lightly. Kids just stood up on a stage in Pauley Pavilion and shared some of their most vulnerable experiences with an audience of more than 500 college students. It’s brave and sobering and grounding. Their stories find a place in your heart and it is our duty as change-makers and as humans to take the knowledge and voices we have to spread their message of hope. Many of the speakers at Dance Marathon had a common theme among their stories — take what you have learned here and bring it with you wherever life takes you. We could easily ask everyone to fundraise the money and just send it to EGPAF, Camp Kindle and the UCLA AIDS Institute. But the point of Dance Marathon is to inspire people to take this cause upon themselves, and at the very least, give every dancer, moraler and performer the ability to become an advocate for this cause.

I know PAC harasses you on BruinWalk with our loud highlighter shirts and interminable smiles as we try to flyer you with one-liners not limited to but including “best 26 hours of your life” and “for the kids.” But that’s not simply some platitude we chose to run with because it sounds like a lit time. Dance Marathon truly is the best 26 hours of your life. Your feet will hurt and your mind will race in these early hours of Sunday morning and you will probably question why you chose to lock yourself in Pauley Pavilion with 500 other students. But the reason Dance Marathon is a UCLA tradition is not because it is a frivolous event just to have fun with your friends. You will have a good time — but it is so much more than that. These 26 hours encapsulate what it means to be a Bruin: perseverance, open-mindedness, and respect. As the hours start to add up and the muscles in your feet start to go numb, your heart starts to fill with a kind of love I have only ever experienced at Dance Marathon.

It is solidarity and hope.

After these 26 hours, it will be easy to pat ourselves on the back and say “good job, we raised the money” and go home. But I implore you to challenge yourself. Share what you have learned here with your friends and family. Ask questions. Do research. Learn more. Maybe bring more people to Dance Marathon because hopefully these 26 hours have affected something other than your feet and circadian rhythm. Pediatric AIDS is preventable. It is literally within our means to change lives — and as a Bruin, but more importantly as a human, standing for 26 hours is the least we can do.

Written by Ridhi Arun