JOHNSTOWN — Miranda Nichols has a passion for dance.
She’s hoping that Point Park University — where she’s waiting to be accepted after auditioning to major in that particular art — will see it.
It was certainly obvious, though, to the judges in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Distinguished Young Woman scholarship competition at Johnstown High School. They rated her dance-themed response in the self-expression category the best of the night, which helped to springboard her to the title of Pennsylvania’s Distinguished Young Woman.
Nichols, a Neshannock High senior who was named Lawrence County’s Distinguished Young Woman in May, is just the third local winner to claim the state title in 53 years, but also the second to do so in the last six. She joins Mohawk’s Elissa Houk Cowher — Saturday’s emcee — and Wilmington’s Paige Harry, who got the sweep in 2009 and 1980, respectively.
Nichols now advances with 49 other state winners to national competition next spring in Mobile, Ala.
The daughter of Dr. Randy and Mindy Nichols walked away from Lawrence County’s competition with the overall title, but claimed none of the top spots in the five program categories — interview, scholarship, talent fitness and self-expression.
“I won the program because I was like second and third across the board,” Nichols said. “Self-expression was actually my lowest score in the local program.”
But then came Saturday’s question in Johnstown. She was asked to talk about someone who inspires her.
“I talked about Martha Graham, who was a dancer who invented modern dance, basically,” she said. “She was a very innovative and creative lady. I just talked about how her creativity and passion inspired me and my own passion.
“It’s not as if I didn’t feel confident in my answer because it was an honest answer, but I definitely did not think that I would win that category. I just wanted to make an improvement from my local score.”
Rosanne Palladino, chairman of the local pageant, attended Saturday’s event and knew that Nichols had done that.
“She gave her answer, and I thought, ‘Wow, that was really good,’ ” Palladino said. “Then after her fitness routine, I leaned over (to her husband) and said, ‘She’s got that one in the bag.’ ”
Indeed, she did.
In addition to the Self-Expression Award, Nichols went on to claim the fitness and interview awards.
“Definitely, the surprise for me was that I won self-expression,” Nichols said. “Fitness, I was really proud of because I think that’s my strongest suit. Interview, I was happy to know that they felt I interviewed well because that’s a skill I can use for my entire life.”
Although Nichols wanted to bring all her scores up from the local competition, winning the state title wasn’t on her radar. Initially, she said, she was just happy to be taking part and getting to know her fellow contestants.
“As the week went on, it started to be in the back of my mind that maybe I could possibly be in the top five,” she said. “But mainly, I was doing it for the fun of it. I like competition, but it wasn’t about winning for me.
“On Saturday night, I just did my best and I was very happy to have won.”