This former Rockette is still teaching dance lessons while living with MS: ‘I’m really, really lucky’

·Writer

Michelle Tolson’s road to becoming a Rockette started when she was 10 years old. She had just seen Vanessa Williams win Miss America, in 1984, and decided she wanted to do the same.

“It was the first time I saw someone look like me [win the pageant],’” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Tolson eventually went on to win the title of Miss New Hampshire in 1996. But during her reign, she decided to take a bus to New York City to audition alongside 600 other people for the chance to become a Rockette. “I had no fear at 22,” she says. “And I got in on my first shot.”

But one day, Tolson developed a weird symptom that would end up changing her life. “I woke up one morning and had a blurry left eye,” she says. She made an appointment with her eye doctor, who said her eyes seemed fine. But her doctor sent her to get an MRI over a concern that her optic nerve might be inflamed.

Michelle Tolson shares her experiences of life with MS. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle)
Michelle Tolson shares her experiences of life with MS. (Photo: Yahoo Lifestyle)

After her MRI, Tolson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), an often debilitating disease that causes a person’s immune system to attack the protective covering of their nerves. People with MS often struggle with symptoms like having difficulty walking, along with pain, numbness, and fatigue, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“I didn’t know how to deal with it,” Tolson says. “When you’re diagnosed with MS as a dancer, you think everything is going to change.”

She started on a treatment but, during a six-month followup, learned that there were new lesions on her brain — a sign that her condition was worsening. But, once she switched to a new type of therapy, her scan revealed that she had no new lesions. Now her condition is stable and, Tolson shares, “because of my medication, I should never get any worse than I am now.”

Michelle Tolson, left, with another Rockette from back in the day. (Photo: Marty Lederhandler/AP)
Michelle Tolson, left, with another Rockette from back in the day. (Photo: Marty Lederhandler/AP)

She adds that her life “hasn’t changed” since then. “I’m still teaching dance, I’m still wandering around New York City taking a train. I can walk up and down stairs,” she says. “I’m still speaking mostly well. Getting a word out is hard sometimes. I know what it is, but it just won’t come out. If that’s it, I’m really, really lucky.”

Tolson isn’t taking that “luck” for granted though. “Speaking about MS has become very important to me after being diagnosed because I knew nothing about it,” she says. “If I can help somebody know and be aware of what MS is, I think I’ve done some good in the world.”

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