The winter night air is chilled as fathers and daughters shuffle into the Hunter Conference Center on the campus of Southern Utah University.
It’s Feb. 2, 2019, the night of the first annual SUU Athletic Department Daddy-Daughter Dance.
A line awaits father and daughter couples at a makeshift ticket office, staffed by SUU gymnasts with welcoming smiles.
A few shoes need rebuckling, and a few more secrets needing to be whispered in fatherly ears before the couples approach the office. The gymnasts exchange compliments with the children. Laughter escapes their mouths with anticipation.
Up the stairs, the fathers hold their daughters’ hands as they approach the portal. The girls stream into the conference center on a rosy-red carpet. They’re greeted by a sparkling chandelier, an arch made from hundreds of blue and white balloons, and student-athletes coming forward to take their coats.
The chandelier glistens in their eyes, wide with anticipation after entering what must feel like a story book.
There are banners with funny words hanging from the rafters and a lot of paintings of old people inside. The girls don’t care. They make their way to the donut rack, then the face painting station before a pit stop in the photo booth on the way to the dance floor.
After a few more treats the girls end up swaying with their fathers. It would be hard not to feel like a princess to the sound of Steven Curtis Chapman’s Cinderella on this magical night.
Meanwhile, SUU student Taylor Whitson is in what she describes as “urgency mode.” She’s making sure the coats are hung up nicely and replenishing the donut stack. The dance was her idea, and she was taking care of every detail she could.
Taylor stays in motion until all the raffle prizes are won and all the gift bags are distributed. Her father, Dustin Whitson, walks up behind her.
“Have you taken the time to take this in? Do you realize what you’ve done? This is really awesome, Tay. I’m really proud of you.”
Nine months later, Taylor can’t fight back a few tears when reliving that night.
“In that moment it all just hits you,” Taylor said. “You see professors across the room who have really affected you, and you see that this night with their girls is really special.”
Some fathers later told her that the girls refused to take their dresses off when they got back home. The princesses exclaimed that they wanted to go again next week.
Little did they know the amount of effort that went into it. Taylor, who is a strategic communication intern for the SUU Athletic Department, hatched the idea in a department meeting in September 2018.
She wanted to make a difference in the world, but felt intimidated by her lack of funds. She looked around the room and saw coaches, advisors and colleagues she admired.
Then it dawned on her. The athletic department held all the resources she’d need to do something for the greater good.
“I thought, that I would be cheating myself if I didn’t use the people around me for the sake of the cause.”
She realized she had the support, and excitedly called her father after the meeting.
“So, what are you going to do with it?” Dustin asked. She hadn’t thought of that part yet.
The Whitsons brainstormed ideas of charity events they’d attended in the past, and Taylor remembered the Daddy, Daughter dances Dustin had put on as a pastor when she was growing up.
“This could be dope,” Taylor said. Then she went into urgency mode.
She floated the idea to Chanel Barnes, then SUU Senior Woman Administrator, and Barnes loved it. As Athletic Director Debbie Corum walked past her office, Barnes called out to her. Taylor told Corum the idea.
“I love it. You have my full backing,” Corum responded. “Go.”
So Taylor went.
She started setting up spreadsheets, researching and reaching out to the university’s administration. Next she needed to decide on a theme, a beneficiary, pitch the idea to SUU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, choose a venue, manage logistics and everything else that goes into planning an event of such a large scope.
The theme was easy. Each year the Big Sky Conference chooses a theme to focus on with each SAAC at the universities in the conference. They had chosen Set the Expectation as their theme for 2018, and Taylor knew that it was a cause worth supporting.
Set the Expectation is a non-profit campaign led by Brenda Tracy. Tracy was sexually assaulted by four football players and has dedicated her life to “educating, engaging, and inspiring men and coaches to become involved in the fight against sexual violence.”
Tracy doesn’t believe that society can talk about men as the problem in sexual violence unless it’s also willing to talk about them as the solution. She tours the country talking with college football programs about putting an end to sexual violence. Taylor loved her message, and the theme for the Daddy-Daughter Dance was set.
Next came the beneficiary. Taylor reached out to Iron County’s Women Crisis Center and committed to donating the money raised to them.
She constantly called her dad for advice and reassurance. She worked with SAAC to plan out games and activities for the event. The teams lined up in support.
Gymnastics ran the ticketing and taught the girls a short dance. Football ran the coat check and face painting as well as setting up and taking down (although they had a bit of trouble with the balloon arch). Track and Field helped with food and drink. Softball manned the raffle table. Everyone pitched in because it takes a lot of hands to treat royalty.
There was one last problem. What about the daughters with no daddies to dance with?
Taylor contemplated a solution. She asked the football team if they would be willing to stand in for the fathers who weren’t around, couldn’t attend or had more than one daughter. They obliged, and at the dance 6’7” left tackle Braxton Jones could be seen crouching to dance with a new fan.
The 500 donuts brought as refreshments didn’t even last an hour. There were 212 fathers in attendance and 230 daughters. They raised $3,320 for Set the Expectation and the Women’s Crisis Center.
Days after the event a few football players messaged Taylor to tell her how much the dance meant to them. Some hadn’t grown up with fathers, and seeing the love the dads had for their daughters inspired them.
Brenda Tracy loved the event, and added it to her arsenal of activities to use during her appearances around the country. The University of Virginia called Taylor for help on how to set up a Daddy, Daughter Dance of their own.
Now Taylor is prepping for the sequel, set to take place on Jan. 25, 2020. The next dance’s theme is mental health awareness, to go along with the Big Sky’s mental health initiative.
During the prep for the first dance, she wondered how they would even pull it off. Now she wonders how they can make it even bigger and more magical.
Taylor hugged her father on that chilly February night in the storybook she’d created. She hugged him a little tighter than usual.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos courtesy of Wyatt Larsen