VATICAN CITY — David Rider still does the occasional barrel roll, but now he usually does it wearing a Roman collar. He's kept his tap shoes since entering the seminary, but his goal has changed dramatically.
"I just want to be a normal parish priest. What I see myself doing is the thing I'm preparing to do, which is celebrate the Mass devoutly, hear confessions, baptize babies, and bring God to people in their suffering and their joy," the 27-year-old New York archdiocesan seminarian said.
"If God has a way he wants to work my art into it, I'll be open to that, but I'm not preparing to be a tap-dancing priest," Rider said. "I just want to be a good, holy parish priest."
Vatican statistics show a continuing rise in the number of candidates for the priesthood worldwide. The data — a 4 percent increase in 2005-2010, going from 114,439 seminarians to 118,990 candidates for the priesthood — are clearly illustrated in the bustling halls of Rider's seminary, the Pontifical North American College, where the current enrollment is 247 seminarians.
The big numbers mean a big variety in backgrounds, previous job experiences and talents within the NAC community. Of course, there are singers and musicians, but there's also a fire-breathing seminarian and one who once was a professional Irish step dancer.
Some of their gifts are highlighted during an in-house talent show each Thanksgiving weekend and again during a spring fundraising dinner for the college. But there's not a whole lot of time for practicing between prayer, Mass, pastoral classes and courses at the pontifical universities in Rome.
As Rider found out, it's surprisingly hard to keep secret something like having been part of an international touring company of the Broadway show "42nd Street."
When they arrive in Rome, the first-year students at the NAC take intensive Italian classes. "We had to go around the room and speak about our jobs ... that's when everyone turned their head," Rider said.
Then it came time to organize the Thanksgiving weekend talent show. The student director asked, "'Would it kill you to dance in the show?' and I really had to think and pray about it, because once it gets out, it doesn't stop. But I wanted to make my contribution to my class, so I did it and that was the end of trying to hide it."
Rider, who has been dancing since he was 3 years old and opened his own studio at the age of 15, said, "When I said 'yes' to the seminary, I thought I was making a big sacrifice of my career and my dancing.
"I don't think I'll ever dance the way I used to dance -- and that's part of the sacrifice -- but at the same time, God has opened many doors for me to use it and to use it for his kingdom. And that's a difference."
Rider's life has been influenced strongly by two heroes: Gene Kelly and Blessed John Paul II. Kelly attracted him to dance and Pope John Paul helped move his gaze from the stage to the altar.
Blessed John Paul died in 2005 when Rider was touring with "42nd Street." On the television coverage of the papal death, commentators spoke repeatedly about how the late pope gave up acting for the priesthood.
Watching the funeral on television, Rider said he had "this desire to emulate him, to follow in his footsteps and to make that sacrifice, to say 'yes' to the priesthood, so as to have a similar effect on the world."
Just as the late pope's acting experience gave him an obvious ease and a special charisma for connecting with individuals, even when they were standing with hundreds of thousands of other people, Rider thinks his stage experience could contribute to his priesthood.
"In the priesthood when you have to go from a wedding to a death to a first Communion to an anointing to a car accident, you have to know how to make yourself one with the person in front of you, regardless of where you are, what state of mind you're in, and show business taught me how to do that," he said.
Rider still teaches tap occasionally, helping out at a Rome dance school.
Dancing in a Roman collar has a different impact in the school than it does on the seminary stage.
"I wore it the first couple of times I went, but I sensed people weren't talking to me because they're freaked out by it, so then I started going in lay clothes and people were more open," he said. "But then I went back to the collar because I thought I really like the witness this is."
People "are so fascinated by the dancing, and then if they see that I'm not judging them, not immediately throwing the catechism at them, but just talking about music and dance, they don't feel threatened and they'll start asking questions about why I chose this path," Rider said.
"These people are not used to seeing young priests; they aren't used to seeing happy priests," he said. And they're obviously not used to seeing a tap-dancing seminarian.