LEWISTON — Not many things make people feel like dancing at 6 a.m., but there they were, a group of people dancing down the street on their way to the ninth annual Dempsey Challenge on Saturday.

Music could be heard from the parking garage near Simard-Payne Memorial Park, where “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees was blasting from the entertainment stage.

The atmosphere was almost giddy, with a contagious excitement that cut through the chilly morning air and paired nicely with the emerging sunshine.

The ringing of cowbells erupted every minute or so from the registration tent, signifying the registration of a cancer survivor, or a big donation.

“It’s the most exciting part of the whole weekend,” said volunteer coordinator Donna Lafean.

There was some disagreement here.

“We’re here to see Patrick,” exclaimed Lizzie Gaudet of Falmouth, who participated in the challenge with her mother, Susan, and friend Mikayla Carney of Portland.

And at 7 a.m, there he was, Lewiston-born Patrick Dempsey, standing on the stage with a smile on his face, McDreamy as ever, to kick off this year’s challenge, which includes a 5k and a 10k walk/run and bicycle rides ranging from 10 to 100 miles.

Actor Patrick Dempsey poses with Nina Houghton at the starting line of the Dempsey Challenge, a cancer fundraiser, on Saturday in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

While a colorful hot-air balloon hovered overhead and a drone buzzed circles in the air, Dempsey welcomed the crowd and talked about the importance of the challenge and how the huge amount of fundraising makes it possible for the services offered at the Dempsey Center to remain free to anyone affected by cancer.

The center offers support, education and quality of life care including massage, yoga, acupuncture and Reiki. The Challenge is its annual fundraiser.

“This is just amazing to see the spirit behind everyone’s motivation,” Dempsey told participants Saturday. “I want you to remember these feelings as we go into the coming weeks and months. With the world so full of conflict, just take one moment every day to remember these feelings.”

He had some fun on stage with the men and women’s lacrosse team of Colby College, who beat out Bates and Bowdoin for the second year in a row in their fundraising challenge, with $25,000 raised. He listened with joy as the students sang the Colby song at the top of their lungs.

“You’ve got a real strong future singing,” he said.

He introduced the oldest rider of the challenge, Don Robitaille, who at 86 is the only member of his family who hasn’t had cancer. Robitaille lost his parents to cancer, and his two brothers and two sisters have cancer now.

Dempsey dove into the crowd, hugging, taking pictures, asking about teams and hearing participants’ stories.

“I’m actually shaking,” said Olivia Reyes of Boston after her hug and selfie with Dempsey. “This is the best day of my life.”

Reyes, wearing a “Grey’s Anatomy” T-shirt, walked the 5k for her grandmother, a two-time cancer survivor.

People grinned ear to ear as they looked down at their phones, the screens displaying a smiling Dempsey and themselves.

“He’s amazing, I mean everything about him,” said Maddie Hatch, a Colby student from Wilbraham, Massachusetts. “He gave me a big hug.”

This is Hatch’s third year participating in the challenge. She said the Dempsey Challenge owes much of its success to Dempsey’s friendly, gracious demeanor.

“He’s so open to taking pictures,” Hatch said. “(The Challenge) wouldn’t go so smoothly if he wasn’t like that. He wants to make sure everyone has a good time, and it’s so obvious he’s doing this because he genuinely cares.”

The Amgen Breakaway from Cancer Survivor Walk, a Dempsey Challenge tradition, was an emotional event. A crowd of cancer survivors was led by the Edward Little High School marching band and Dempsey, who walked arm in arm with those he said were “more than survivors; (they’re) thrivers.”

Joining Dempsey in the lead was Amanda Dempsey award-winner Christina Parrish, who said, “You become a survivor the day you’re diagnosed.”

And thrivers and survivors they were. Fighters, even.

Carol Smith of Solon, Ohio, ran in the 5k. She has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her spine.

“I’m going to continue to run,” she said. “I’ll need treatment the rest of my life: surgery, radiation, medication, until we find a cure or the cancer takes me.”

Smith is a member of the Challenge to Conquer Cancer team, which has collectively raised $10 million toward fighting cancer in the past 10 years.

Rebecca Papsis of Lewiston, a member of the team Running for Rebecca’s Rack, walked in the challenge. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer on June 5 and is in her second round of chemotherapy, with two more treatments left.

“She’s been amazing every step of the way,” said her daughter, Victoria.

As Dempsey himself said, there was “something magical in the air” on Saturday at Simard Payne-Memorial Park.

“This event demonstrates the power of community behind a cause,” Dempsey said.

Liz Marquis can be contacted at:

[email protected]