He could have headed to Broadway, but David Rider chose to put God first. Now, by sharing his talent, this seminarian finds a way to meet people at a deeper level
By Sarah Mundell
“That guy could be on Broadway!” So say many people who have seen David Rider tap dancing on stage, at the dance school he ran in upstate New York or even today in various venues and schools in Italy. His crisp technique recalls an art form based on pure talent, gift of self, with no digital enhancement or cut-and-paste screen clips to make it look better. The striking thing about his dancing is not only the way his steps recall those of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. As this 27 year old’s feet simultaneously click, stomp and glide joyfully across the floor, you may come to learn something special about him: he’s a seminarian!
It is true, that in order to enter the seminary, Rider left behind one of the things he loved most — or so he thought. He had been dancing since he was three years old, opened his own school of tap when he was 15 and owned it for 9 years. After a number of tours and shows, just three days after he had announced his decision to enter the seminary, Rider was offered a job touring with a show dedicated to the great tap dancers of the past. His role would have been to represent Fred Astaire — just a stepping-stone away from Broadway. As strong as his love for tap was, the call to follow God through the priesthood had become even stronger. He said no to the job. “For the first time in my life, I had put God ahead of dancing,” he says.
At this point you might ask, “Why did he give it up when he could have been a big success?” Although he grew up in a Catholic family, it was a high school teacher who helped him rediscover his faith. Then, on the way to World Youth Day in Toronto, in 2002, he was impressed by the kindness of a Focolare young man. Later a Focolare friend shared with him what would become the secret of David’s joy: “If you want to be truly happy, every morning when you get up try to make an act of love, then another one, then another one.” One day with other Focolare youth, they heard a line by St. John of the Cross, “Where there is no love, bring love and there you’ll find love.”
That inspired David to give it a try when he arrived home. “In our kitchen, there were a few light bulbs that had been burned out for a long time. Almost every week, my mom reminded my dad that it was time to change them. Hearing this new way of loving, I went right away to buy new ones and changed them during that night. The next morning, my parents couldn’t believe their eyes. That day there was a different atmosphere at home. It seemed as if each member of the family was in a loving attitude toward each other. I’ll never forget it.”
That changed the way he taught his tap dance classes, too. “From the light of the spirituality of unity, I understood that, since love brings light, it would be enough to teach young people to put love into practice seriously, and faith would follow.” So he encouraged his students to do so during class.
The more he loved, the more tap dancing was no longer at the center of his life: God was. As his appreciation for the Church grew, he began to realize that the biggest way of giving witness was to devote his whole life to God. “At the end of our lives, after all of our accomplishments, everything but love disappears,” Chiara Lubich told the youth. He understood from her and from his experience with the Focolare that life was meant to be spent loving and giving oneself away, and he saw the diocesan priesthood as the best way that he could do this.
Even so, he did not have to put away his dancing shoes. “I love to share what my own archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said to me the first time he met me as a seminarian and found out that I was a tap dancer,” says Rider. “His first words were: ‘Never stop dancing. We need to use everything we can to bring people to Jesus Christ.’”
And in fact, the directors of the seminary in Rome, where Rider now lives and studies, are also very enthusiastic about his involvement in tap. “They recognized in my dancing a possible, even if unconventional, way of contributing to the New Evangelization that we are focusing on now as a Church,” he says.
“Naturally, I can’t dance as much as I did when tap was my full-time career,” he said. “My first responsibility now is to prepare myself well for the priesthood. However, I manage to get out to dance in Rome about twice a month, on my days off, and I also jam every so often with a group of seminarians who are jazz musicians.”
“I often wear my collar when I dance in public, and the combination of both things has led to some very profound conversations, often with people who have not been to church in years,” he explains.
He has found a more universal way to talk about God — not with words but through dance. “It has been my experience that if I begin talking about that which we have in common — dancing, art, music — and the other person feels loved, usually it is not too long before the question comes: ‘So, why did you choose this different path?’”
That is the critical moment, an open door, but it is a threshold he crosses with much respect and love for the person in front of him. “I try to take the opportunity not to preach but to share something of the joy I have experienced in living my relationship with God, or to talk about even more general things, if the person is not ready to talk about God,” he says.
What about talented young people who are facing choices between success in their work and staying faithful to their Catholic values?
“I would say that it is important to see if there truly is a contradiction between one’s faith and one’s work. When we establish relationships of communion with others and try to discuss things in an atmosphere of mutual love, we often find that what seems like a dead end really isn’t. If, in the end, it is clear that one has to choose in some concrete situation between success and fidelity to one’s Catholic values, then we simply have to make an act of faith that the best thing we can ever do is the will of God, even if it seems like we will be losing out in that moment.
“A line of Pope Benedict has been a great help to me in similar situations — ‘Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away and He gives you everything. When we give ourselves to Him, we receive a hundredfold in return.’” Is it necessary to become a priest or a nun to follow God?
“St. Catherine of Siena once said, ‘If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.’ God is calling all of us to be saints, whether we’re married, single, consecrated lay people, religious or priests. What is necessary is only to do what we perceive God to be asking of us in the state of life to which he has called us. If we do this, each of us can change the world and help bring forward the Kingdom of God!”