It ended Sunday in a shower of aspirin tablets, Band-Aids, baby powder and Peoples' Air Foam insoles. One sore batch of University of Maryland students, drained after 72 hours mostly on their feet, had survived the 13th annual Dancers Against Cancer marathon.
They started out wild with energy Thursday night under the lights in College Park's Ritchie Coliseum; when the last song played three days later, the dancers swayed slowly shoulder-to-shoulder in a giant circle, tired beyond pain but glowing with satisfaction.
The marathon has raised $600,000 for the American Cancer Society over the past 12 years; this year organizers estimated that they pulled in more than $30,000 in donations for cancer research. Besides dancing, students gathered donations over the phone and by soliciting door-to-door.
For the dancers, though, fund raising has become a ritual of endurance. Each couple generates $70 from a private sponsor, but that comes only at the end. For three straight days, their sole purpose is to dance.
They were fed breakfasts, lunches and dinners donated by area restaurants. They had all the free wine and beer they could drink. On Saturday, they even got to watch the Terrapin football team play Clemson on television sets wheeled to the edge of the dance floor. But they couldn't stop dancing.
Between 2 and 6 a.m. they were allowed to sleep. The 66 couples split up for those hours, stretching out on bedrolls in a fraternity and a sorority. Promptly at 6 a.m., they were back on the gym floor.
"I got no sleep the first night," said Allan Schulman. "I felt like I closed my eyes, opened them up and had to come out here dancing again."
He spoke as he and the other dancers, nearly listless an hour before the final dance, sprawled out on the floor while other students auctioned mementos donated by the school's athletic department, sports heroes and others. Former Terp basketball wonder Buck William's jersey brought $190. Cheers from the audience prodded those bidding on a Rolling Stones' album -- autographed by bass player Bill Wyman -- to ante up $230.
The collapsed dancers suddenly shot to their feet when Butch Corsetti walked onto the stage during the auction. Days earlier, student organizers had sought a dinner speaker for their 500-plate kickoff banquet, and the Cancer Society suggested Corsetti. He was touched by the effort the students put into the marathon, and although he knew sponsors kept them well-fed, he brought the dancers sandwiches.
Corsetti said in his speech that in June 1981, doctors told him he would die of cancer within a month. But he fought it, and long after the appointment with death passed, he was standing in the spotlights, smiling and waving goodbye to the friends he had made in three short days. They bade him farewell with all the noise left in their hands and voices.