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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Dancing with a star: Student sets Dance Marathon record

<p>Matt Michel poses for a photo at his ninth Dance Marathon event in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center early Sunday morning.</p>

Matt Michel poses for a photo at his ninth Dance Marathon event in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center early Sunday morning.

Matt Michel didn’t set out to make a name for himself. Breaking a national record — twice — was never the goal.

On Sunday in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, he became the longest-running Dance Marathon charity participant in the country, two times over. Out of thousands of dancers at more than 150 schools nationwide that raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals through DM, Michel is the only one who has made it to nine years at the annual event, smashing his previous record of eight years in 2011.

On Saturday and Sunday, he and 810 other dancers stood for 26.2 hours straight. They learned the annual line dance, fist-pumped in a silent disco and played Quidditch with hula hoops. Every few hours, they listened to patients’ families talk about how their children benefited from care funded by DM.

Michel said the stories make the event meaningful and keep him coming back.

“That’s what makes it different than, say, beach cleanup,” he said.

But when Michel, 27, signed up for DM for the first time with his fraternity pledge class, he didn’t know much beyond a video he saw of the group line dance. It seemed fun, and he’d be with friends — why not?

Now, he is a veteran dancer, with favorite line dances and favorite moves. The dance to Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” is one of his favorites, and he prefers high-energy dances with transitions between song clips.

He has enough DM experience to have planned outfit changes, supportive shoes and a study spot near an outlet. He wore orange-and-blue plaid board shorts — board shorts are comfortable, and bright colors keep him alert. The shorts also match his Cheeto-orange hair.

He has raised $300 to $400 each year for a total of about $3,000 since his first year dancing. He wants to keep donating, and he hopes to visit DM after he graduates. The participants and organizers from Michel’s undergraduate days are already at that stage.

Michel might not know some of the younger crowd, but the older participants and staff members still stop to shake his hand or slap a high five every 30 seconds. A four-year dancer who is also Michel’s fraternity great-great-great-great-grand-little brother stopped to chat. Then two friends brought him a smoothie, and when they left, a staff member asked how he’s holding up.

Kenny Brighton, the overall director of DM at UF in 2010 and 2011, used to be one of those people. He said Michel’s been dancing in DM so long that he was allowed to use private rooms reserved for staff members, which is how they met.

Now he can’t imagine DM without Michel.

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Staff members check months ahead to see who has signed up, and seeing Michel’s name on the list helps the staff feel like they will be able to pull off a successful event.

“We all know everything’s going to be right with the world after that,” Brighton joked.

He’s usually visible at the event, but in hours 23 and 24, Michel sticks out for more than his height and his hair.

“People are dragging a little bit,” Brighton said. “But Matt Michel is always excited, always contagious.”

That reputation has lasted, even when Michel should not have been standing at all. In 2009, his ankle was double its usual size, iced and wrapped in bandages. He completed the 26.2 hours on crutches.

“That was the first year I didn’t dance at all,” he said. “I just stood — and very often leaned.” He rolled his ankle when he fell off a rock-climbing wall, and he stayed off his foot as much as possible so he could still participate in DM. He won the Jen Krug award that year for the most outstanding dancer. It was his sixth year, which tied the school record.

Michel said nobody was really sure what the national record was, but people started wondering around his seventh year of Dance Marathon. National representatives confirmed that eight years in a row was a record.

Now he has one year left at UF before he moves to South Florida, where he hopes to practice immigration law. He’s been at UF for almost a decade earning bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and history, master’s degrees in international business and history, his law degree and doctorate degree in Spanish.

Cecily Welsh, a third-year law student who has worked with Michel on the UF Supreme Court, said Michel applies his DM commitment to every area of his life.

He asks thoughtful, pointed questions in his law classes, teaches an undergraduate Spanish course, is a member of Florida Blue Key, has worked in all three branches of Student Government and still goes out of his way to get to know his peers, she said.

“He’s involved with 16 times more things than you’re doing,” she said, laughing.

As Michel approaches the end of his college career, he has to decide whether he will participate in his usual activities and whether he will go for a decade of DM.

Michel sealed his nine-year record when he sat down at 1:42 p.m. on Sunday. But as he marked the end of DM, he knew it might be for the last time.

Contact Clare Lennon at

Matt Michel poses for a photo at his ninth Dance Marathon event in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center early Sunday morning.

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