It is early on a Friday morning in Concord, New Hampshire, and over the soulful notes of Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory,” tap dancer Aaron Tolson is demonstrating a step for one of his students. Full of fast shuffles and sudden weight shifts, combined with the music’s quick tempo, it’s no easy feat of feet, even for him.
“That’s definitely at your threshold of speed,” he comments wryly. “That’s mean. That’s good stuff.”
His student, 21-year-old Megan Lyman, who was crowned Miss New Hampshire 2012 earlier this year, is not intimidated. She immediately attempts to replicate Tolson’s sounds, correcting herself as she goes along. When she has it down, Tolson plays the music again. Lyman messes up almost right away and breaks into a fit of embarrassed laughter.
“See this crazy person?” Tolson inquires jokingly to me. “She’s fired!”
With their playful banter and relaxed attitudes, the two tappers look like they’re just having another private lesson. But this time, there’s more at stake than just a few shuffles: Tolson is choreographing Lyman’s routine for the talent portion of the 2013 Miss America Pageant.
The two met in 2001, when Tolson taught a guest class at Broadway North, the small studio in Belmont, New Hampshire, where nine-year-old Lyman was training. She said that they “instantly connected.”
“I remember telling the owner that I thought Megan had a lot of talent and was different than the rest of the kids,” Tolson said. “Her mother agreed with me and thought it would be good for me to work privately with her.”
Tolson, 36, a master teacher and choreographer, performed for six years with the touring phenomenon Riverdance, where he was a featured soloist and dance captain. Along with best friend and fellow hoofer Derick Grant, he co-created Imagine Tap!, a tap revue which debuted in Chicago in 2006, and became a spokesman for the dancewear company SoDanca. A New Hampshire native, he moved to New York City in 2010 and teaches open tap classes for all levels at various studios.
After meeting Lyman, who has been tapping since the age of three, he began choreographing her solo routines for local dance competitions. As she grew older and more advanced, she performed his choreography at professional venues like Tap City: The New York City Tap Festival and the Beantown Tapfest in Boston, Massachusetts.
She also became the dance captain for Tolson’s New England Tap Ensemble, which he started in 2007.
“Megan was not part of it initially,” he said. “I didn’t just want to hand her an opportunity. I told her I needed her to practice more to be ready for it. She did, and with her motherly attitude and strong work ethic, quickly earned herself a leadership role.”
Inspired by many of her dance teachers, who had competed for local titles and for Miss New Hampshire, Lyman decided to enter herself when she was 15. Three times she competed for Miss New Hampshire Outstanding Teen, with Tolson choreographing her routine each time. After placing the first two years, she won the title in 2008.
Tolson continued coaching her as she competed for three years in the Miss New Hampshire pageants. Before winning the overall title, she won the talent portion with his choreography.
She is not the only contestant who will be making rhythms on the Miss America stage next year. There are eight other tap dancers competing with her – the most there have ever been in the pageant’s history.
“I think it will make for a great show and competition,” Lyman said. “If I win, I want to win against the best.”
“It’s very exciting to me as a tap dancer,” Tolson said. “It shows that there’s a real love for the art form – that there are people trying to be their very best at a style of dance I often hear is dying.”
Through all these years of working together, and a lot of quality time both in and out of the dance studio, student and teacher became close friends. Their relationship helped them through some of the most difficult periods of their lives, when they were both affected by disease.
When she was 12, Lyman had a small lump removed from her right shoulder. A biopsy confirmed what she and her family had feared: cancer. She was the first adolescent female in the country to be diagnosed with fibrosarcoma, a stage three soft tissue sarcoma typically found in males over the age of 30 who became terminally ill, as well as infants who died before their second birthday.
“Knowing the odds, my entirely family, friends and community were scared for my life,” she said.
“We happened to be dancing together in New York City when she got the news,” Tolson recalled. “She danced her troubles away with an amazing performance.”
But the physical, emotional and mental stress of her battle kept Lyman out of the studio for almost two years. During that time, she underwent five removal surgeries and two cosmetic surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts.
“Before the cancer, my love for tap dancing was growing, and I was one of the top dancers at my studio,” she said. “Between surgeries, I was too embarrassed to return and not be able to give it my all.”
While she was sick, one of her doctors recommended her to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They surprised her by building a dance studio in her home, complete with marley floors, mirrors, ballet bars, a sound system and a display for all her trophies.
“It’s still my place of choice to rehearse,” she said, “and it’s where I will be practicing for the Miss America stage!”
In July of 2004, while she was fighting her own illness, Tolson’s father, Aaron Sr., was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in August.
“Megan and her mother, Liz, went through the whole experience with me like no one else could,” Tolson said.
He remembered a particular day that he said still brings tears to his eyes. “Megan wanted to see my dad, who by that time was bedridden. But he came out onto the porch for her, and she danced for him in the street. Boy, did he smile! You can’t teach a kid to be that special; she just is.”
As Lyman prepares for the Miss America competition, she and Tolson continue to work together as often as her busy schedule, full of Miss New Hampshire duties, allows. Between all of the blood drives, road races, parades, preliminary competitions and other events she must attend, she joins Tolson in the studio in New York City approximately every three weeks, working four to five hours over a two-day period.
“I am choreographing slowly so that she can master every moment of her dance,” said Tolson. “We both could go faster, but this is her moment.”
This is his third time working with a Miss America contestant and having his work featured in the pageant.
“The first time I was cocky – I thought I knew it all,” he admitted. “The second time was a much more meaningful experience. I was at a high point in my career and wanted to put all that good energy into my choreography so that my contestant would be successful.”
That contestant, Emily Hughes, a former Miss New Hampshire herself, is now Tolson’s wife. Together, they run a small business, “Tap2You,” an all-tap competition with a focus on education.
“This time, it’s very different,” said Tolson. “I have known Megan her whole dancing life and I want her to shine as bright as I can help her shine. The pressure is serious, but exciting. I know that I’m the man for the job.”
Although the stakes are higher than ever this time around, the two have worked together for so long, have come to know each other so well and have been through this process so many times before that they said they are not nervous, but simply looking forward to the big day.
“Aaron has always believed in me,” said Lyman. “No matter what it is I’m doing, he’s my number one fan. We’ve always stayed connected because, through the good and the bad, I have reached out to him to help me move forward.”
“Being nervous is a natal feeling when talking about competition,” said Tolson. “I try to apply that energy into excitement, and channeling that excitement into my student and her choreography typically leads to confidence. Megan will distinguish herself simply by being Megan. She’s adopted her favorite parts of her favorite teachers and developed a style over her many years of dedication that shows ease and enjoyment.
“I’m not preparing her to beat her competition; I’m preparing her to give the best performance she could possibly give.”
[See Ryan's news item on Aaron and Megan in the December 2012 issue of Dance Teacher!]