NORMAL — Welcome to March Madness in mid-April.
Despite the disconnect in the name, rest assured that the madness is as much fun, whatever the month.
The occasion: the 42nd edition of Illinois State University's annual Chi Omega March Madness Greek Dance Competition, which, due to venue scheduling issues beyond anyone's control, now takes place in April.
The fact remains, through: after 41 years of filling Braden Auditorium to capacity each spring, the competitive dance-off among 18 sororities and fraternities is nearly doubling its audience capacity by moving to Redbird Arena for the first time.
"At Braden, which only holds about 3,400, the Greek community took about 2,200 of those seats alone," says Lori Lenahan, alumni coordinator for the event for 25 of its 42 years, and a past performer herself.
Throw in the rest of the friends and family invited to watch, and it was soon standing/dancing room only, with precious little chance for the general public to feel the madness, March, April or otherwise.
(For the record, notes Lenahan, "We were March Madness before the NCAA was March Madness.")
With the added audience room, the event, put on by the Rho Kappa Chapter of the Chi Omega Fraternity, hopes to turn March Madness into a public spectacle, anticipated as much as, say, the Gamma Phi Circus that will take over Redbird the following weekend (April 20-21).
The event was born in 1976 as a Greek community fundraiser for St. Jude's Children's Hospital, in honor of a member who had died of cancer at ISU.
"It started out as a variety show, with different Greek groups doing acts," says Lenahan, who performed in the 1978-80 editions.
Eventually, about 15 years into its history, the show morphed into the all-dancing affair we know today, and, as of 2002, began an association with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"It's always a very moving experience," says Lenahan of the charity's granting wishes to children, who have ranged in age from 4 to 18 during the March Madness association.
On the dance floor, the competition over time has become even more, well, competitive.
"The Greek organizations are very competitive, and they like to use this as bragging rights during recruitment," says Lenahan.
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This year's show is tied to the theme of "A Night at the Cinema," with each of the designated 2½-minute routines keyed to an array of movie songs and soundtracks, including "Fast and the Furious," "High School Musical," "Footloose" and "Mamma Mia!"
"it's amazing how professional they are," says Lenahan of the 18 groups, each comprised of anywhere from 70 to 120 dancers. "And it really does get competitive."
"March Madness is something we look forward to as a chapter every year," agrees Susie Zalewski, a Delta Zeta member and choreographer.
"This event is a perfect opportunity to hang out with our sisters and perform a dance we've all worked together to prepare. We can't wait to see Greek life come together on Saturday to raise money for Make-A-Wish."
The Make-A-Wish component is a big one for the event, with last year's donation surpassing $50,000.
As part of the show, each year's child selected for a wish (the wish child) appears on stage to present a short talk about the wish that was granted.
And that, clearly, is the big lure for the dancers.
"I am so proud to be a part of March Madness and being able to make children's wishes come true is such a blessing," says senior Chi Omega member Georgia Chionis. "They deserve all the happiness in the world."
Adds Alpha Sigma Chi's Steven Jagodzinski, "What March Madness has done for both the Make-A-Wish Foundation and this community over the years is incredible. Chi Omega is the utmost example of how impactful Greek organizations can be."
"March Madness is my opportunity to give back to not only the organization for what it has provided me, but to children and their families who need our love and support," says chairwoman Shania Scurlock, a senior Chi Omega member.
There is added import to this year's event: It is being presented in honor of Emily Houska, a Rho Kappa member who passed away last year. As part of the dedication, there will be a short presentation and video, with family members and friends in attendance.
Also a part of the evening will be a prize raffle, with items ranging from two Cubs tickets to two signed Chicago Blackhawks pucks and a signed picture frame.
"Most representation of Greek life in America is negative, and often justified," says Lenahan. "March Madness showcases the best of Greek life ... where they put their best foot forward."