Tapping Into Fitness: Aaron Tolson’s Sole Power workout is a happy combo of tap, fun, and fitness
by Ryan P. Casey
Amid frequent pronouncements that their art form is dying or dead, hoofers around the world are constantly trying to draw attention to tap dance. International tap festivals, workshops, and concerts proliferate, attracting more and more audience members and students. The internet plays its part in promoting tap concept videos and free lessons.
But Riverdance alumnus Aaron Tolson had a different idea: what if the trick to getting more people to tap dance was getting them to attend a fitness class?
That’s the premise behind Sole Power, a tap workout program Tolson conceived in 2013 that fuses basic tap dance with cardio and strengthening exercises. Offered at fitness centers and dance studios in California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, the class introduces students to elementary tap vocabulary used to build short combinations, which they practice between non-dance exercises. Students alternate between traditional fitness movements, such as stretches, lunges, and jogging in place, and tap steps, including shuffles and toe heels. Sometimes the fitness and tap components are taught separately, so students might learn a new tap step and then transition into a more familiar exercise, such as squats. They are also integrated: a lunge might be performed with a heel drop, for example. The instructor develops the footwork into a longer combination that students work on for the second half of class until they cool down with a stretch sequence. Thus far, Tolson estimates that the program has attracted several thousand students in total; he would like to expand the program to include more classes in more locations, even internationally.
Tolson is the perfect person to helm this kind of project. As a high school student in Manchester, New Hampshire, he broke numerous division and state track records and earned a track scholarship to St. John’s University. He qualified for the 1992 and 1996 Olympic trials, though he was unable to attend. After graduating from St. John’s with a BS in communications, he decided to turn his longtime passion for tap into a career. He toured for six years with Riverdance, co-directed and co-choreographed the 2006 all-tap revue Imagine Tap! with friend and frequent collaborator Derick K. Grant, and became a national spokesperson for dancewear company SoDança. He maintains a packed teaching and performing schedule both nationally and abroad. In 2011, he founded a pre-professional company, Speaking in Taps, in North Andover, Massachusetts, and is in demand as a teacher at tap festivals. Last year he taught at the International Dance Organization’s World Tap Dance Championships in Riesa, Germany, and appeared on the TV show Live With Kelly and Michael (now Live With Kelly) to demonstrate Sole Power.
With this venture, Tolson combines his two lifelong loves, fitness and dance, and realizes one of his longstanding goals: to get more people to tap. Although he admits that similar tap fitness programs exist around the country, he touts the features of his class that make it a safe, successful experience for all students.
Tap dancers know well the inherent danger of their footwear: the metal becomes slick on many surfaces, which means that a misstep or misjudged weight shift could lead to a fall or twisted ankle. And doing hard-hitting footwork, especially with airborne steps, on an unforgiving floor can punish shins, knees, and hips. To use tap in a fitness setting, Tolson knew he would need to make careful modifications, starting with the tap shoe itself.
“Exercising in a tap shoe would be like exercising in a men’s dress shoe,” he says—inappropriate and dangerous. Instead, students wear Power Soles, shoe covers Tolson designed in collaboration with SoDança: plastic taps are attached to the covers, which are worn over sneakers. The plastic taps can be used on a variety of floors, so participants can work out in their sneakers and incorporate tap without compromising their safety.
Tolson also insists that the classes take place in dance studios or gymnasiums that have proper sprung flooring. Sprung floors are safe for joints and muscles, he says, cushioning the impact of the steps.
Sole Power is recognized by the Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), which approves of Tolson’s pedagogy and class format and helps Solemates (qualified Sole Power instructors) receive points toward AFAA certification. Tolson hosts eight-hour sessions during which he trains instructors to teach each part of the class; trainees also receive an information manual on safety, anatomy, and kinesiology. Solemates are certified upon successful completion of the training course and receive updates from Tolson about additions to the curriculum and tips for modifying classes.
A longtime tap teacher who cites Julia Boynton, Joe Dussault, and Josh Hilberman as mentors, Tolson takes pride in teaching Sole Power classes and in training Solemates. Although seasoned tappers are welcome to take Sole Power classes, no dance experience is necessary. “The class teaches you how to tap dance,” he says. “I am not asking people to show up with any preconceived notions or any tap skill. My teachers are trained in my methods of teaching tap.”
Tolson acknowledges that novice dance students sometimes receive poor training and thus develop improper technique, which can lead to injuries such as muscle strains; consequently, he trains his teachers to closely observe students. As the program has developed, so has the student base. Sole Power attracts students from a wide range of ages and physical conditions. Although Solemates always ask students to identify current injuries before class starts, most people won’t mention minor issues, such as with knees or backs, that might affect their performance. Solemates are taught how to respond not only when an injury occurs, but also when someone needs a modification.
As Solemates develop confidence in leading Sole Power classes, Tolson encourages them to modify the classes and make them their own. Although the formula remains consistent, he offers options during training that allow teachers to differentiate their instruction and vary the exercises. Not only older students need movement variations; regular attendees do too. As the overall skill level of regular attendees has increased over time, Tolson has had to adjust the class in order to continue to challenge these students. Originally, the class didn’t include any hops or jumps; however, his students’ success has inspired Tolson to incorporate increasingly more tap into the program curriculum. Students who develop solid technique and want a challenge, for example, might work toward a basic Broadway (also known as Alexander or Shirley Temple). Tolson also says that some students have been inspired by their experiences in Sole Power classes to enroll in regular tap technique classes.
Ultimately, though, Tolson teaches Sole Power for a simple reason: it’s fun. “About 20 minutes into class, the endorphins kick in and it feels so good,” he says. He believes that many people find cardio and strengthening classes difficult or boring, and that they want to make the most of the limited time they have to work out during the week. He knew tap would be the key: “People have said, ‘I can exercise while tap dancing? That will be fun!’ ”
And it’s a good pairing: as Tolson points out, dance isn’t a workout for the body only. “It exercises your memory and your focus,” he says. “When you tap dance, even as an experienced dancer, your mind can’t wander. You have to stay focused.
“Everybody who takes my Sole Power class leaves smiling and telling me it was so much fun,” Tolson says. “To be able to exercise and have a good time at the same time—that’s what makes people come back.”
Ryan P. Casey, an alum of YoungArts, The School at Jacob’s Pillow, Legacy Dance Company, and NYU, is a Boston-based teacher, performer, choreographer, and freelance journalist who directs a tap ensemble, Off Beat.