Father David Rider and Father John Gibson pull up creaky chairs on the wooden stage at the North American College and slide off their black work shoes revealing serious black priests’ socks. Father David slips his feet into metal tipped dancing shoes while Father John laces up his Irish dancing shoes with fiber glass tips and heels. Father David looks at AP cameraman Paolo Lucariello and says, “tell us when?” And just like that they are off — tipping, tapping, stomping, twirling and swirling. They are having a terrific time.
They repeat their various routines over and over again as Paolo and AP photographer Domenico Stinellis work their way around the stage getting close ups of their feet, their faces and long shots of them together gleefully jumping in the air. I slip around the stage trying not to get in the way and enjoying every second of it.
All this was for a story that AP ran this week on this fabulous couple of dancing priests in Rome. Some of you may have already seen the short AP story but here is my longer version:
They tip, they tap, they stomp and jump and twist and twirl. They are the dueling dancing priests who have gone viral on the web. It all started with a show last spring at the Rector’s dinner at the North American College – the elite university for American seminarians in Rome. Twenty-nine year-old Father David Rider from Hyde Park, New York let loose a fabulous routine of tap-dancing. But after a few minutes another priest made his way up to the stage, Father John Gibson, a 28-year-old from Milwaukee. Gibson gave Rider a friendly push aside and launched into a round of energetic Irish dancing, bouncing high in the air. And then they were off and running, taking turns trying to outdo each other while the crowd went wild.
Joan Lewis, the Rome Bureau Chief for Eternal World Television Network was in the back of the room. She pulled out her ipad and began to film. That night she posted it on her youtube site “JoansRome” with the title “A MUST SEE TAP DANCE DUEL BY US SEMINARIANS” As she explained to me the other day at the Vatican—in between briefings on the Synod– the clicks started to fly. “It just kept growing and growing…and it has just grown and grown and I know yesterday it was 240,000, so who knows what it is today, it seems to grow by about 5,000 a day.” (Note: as of today, October 25th, the hits are over one million.)
But with the clicks came the comments, dozens of them. Several individuals said that the priests should not be dancing under a crucifix sparking a debate. The comments have now been removed, but there are still 151 thumbs down compared to over 4,000 thumbs up. Clearly some people have a problem seeing priests dance under a painting of Pope Francis and a large Crucifix.
Joan Lewis was unfazed, “The overwhelming majority approve it. There was a small group, and then they started writing each other, a small group saying “oh my goodness they are dancing under the crucifix…So those comments, I mean, I read them, they are in a minority, and its just like “oh gosh, I kinda feel sorry for ya.”
On a recent morning in Rome, Father David and Father John donned their dancing shoes for a rehearsal at the North American College with Associated Press. Father David had his metal-tipped tap-dancing shoes, and Father John had his fiberglass reinforced tips and heels. The two of them clipped across the wooden stage in the North American College auditorium as they flew through their routines with energy and passion. It wasn’t long before they had worked up a sweat in their long black pants and long sleeved black shirts and white collars. Father David told me they would never dance in anything else, “I never dance without my collar on, I always wear these clothes as witness.”
The two men are not quite sure what to make of their newfound fame. “Everyone I talk to nowadays brings up that video, most people are very energetic and enthusiastic about it so it is good to receive that feedback,” said Father John sheepishly, insisting that his real priority in life is becoming a parish priest back in Wisconsin. Father John said he comes from a big Irish family in Milwaukee and it was his sister who first introduced him to the joys of Irish dancing.
Father David Rider started taking tap dancing lessons when he was three, then when he was a young teen he saw Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain” and fell in love with it and decided he wanted to become a tap dancer. Each young man felt the calling to become a priest in his late teens and decided to make that his top priority, but neither has given up on dancing.
They were both surprised when their dancing duel went viral and were not expecting the negative comments. “Oh, well some people thought that it is not appropriate for priests to dance,” said Rider, “we would just refer them to the Bible where David dances before the Ark of the Covenant and the Lord tells us to live with joy. This is a great way to express joy.”
Both priests have completed their seminarian course and are busy getting graduate degrees now at other Pontifical Universities in Rome, but they have not given up the dancing. According to Father David, “ Because there is not too much precedent for tap dancing priests, I have no one to look to see how this all works out. So really it is all to be discovered.”
Note to Blog Readers: Unfortunately, I cannot attach the AP Television report we did because it is for AP TV clients only, but here is a shortened version for AP’s on-line video service.