For David Rider, performing in the national touring company's production of the Broadway hit "42nd Street" was the chance of a lifetime. But the 20-year-old hoofer from Hyde Park is not hanging his hopes on the kind of discovery that catapulted "42nd Street" ingenue character Peggy Sawyer to stardom.
He has a still higher calling in mind.
Last month, Rider enrolled in a seminary in Cheshire, Conn., to become a Catholic priest. He left behind a promising career as a professional tap dancer — Dance Spirit magazine recently named him one of its "20 Hot Tappers 20 and Under" — and David Rider's World of Tap, the studio he founded (with his mom's help) at the age of 16. It is a seemingly unlikely career twist, especially in an era when priestly ordinations continue to decline. After all, as Rider said, "The world I'm about to go into and the world I'm leaving are very different."
Still, he said, the decision was clear.
"I love the church, I love Catholicism," he said in an interview at his office. On his desk were a framed photograph of Gene Kelly, a small painting of Jesus and a plastic bottle of holy water. "I enjoy tap dancing."
Rider has an open face, with blue eyes. He looks younger than his 20 years, an appearance that is at odds with his mature bearing and thoughtful way of speaking.
He was two years old when he began dancing. Two of his older sisters (he has four altogether) were taking classes and one day he joined them. At first, he admits, he may have been driven by a sense of competition. But soon, he took to it. He found his early heroes in Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, whose movies he watched over and over.
"I loved the music and the way they looked," he recalled. "They were so masculine, nothing feminine about it."
When he was 13, he began studying rhythm tap, a percussive style, with teacher Michele Ribble at her Rhinebeck Dance Center. She quickly found Rider to be an exceptional tap dancer — and a natural teacher. At only 14, Rider began teaching lessons at her school. Founding his own school earned him pocket money and he forged strong bonds with his students, he said, but his focus always was dancing.
"I would teach until 9 p.m. and then lock the door and practice until midnight," he remembered. He won more than two dozen awards for his dancing and choreography and dreamed of dancing on Broadway. Yet by the time he successfully auditioned for a spot in the "42nd Street" chorus, he had already found his true vocation.
Growing up, he was a "lukewarm Catholic," Rider said. Masses were rare events and confessions even rarer. His parents, David and Kathy, a social worker and dietician, respectively, said they avoided doctrine.
"We're children of the '60s," Kathy Rider said. "We wanted to let them do their own thinking and draw their own conclusions."
The younger David said somehow he always sensed he would go on to become a priest. The turning point came in his junior year at Our Lady of Lourdes High School. He credits religion teacher Peter Lyons with helping him work through doubts that fogged his faith.
Then, "I was overcome by grace," he said.
Once he had fully committed to his faith, the priesthood seemed the only logical conclusion.
He kept his plans secret, enrolling at Fordham University in the Bronx to study theology. In November, he called his parents from the road to tell them he wanted to enroll in the seminary of the Legionaries of Christ as soon as he finished "42nd Street," after just one year of college.
The Legionaries have one of the longest formations in the church — typically 12 to 14 years — and David Rider said he wanted to begin as soon as possible.
Reactions were mixed. His parents, while ultimately supportive of his decision, hoped he would finish college. They know as a member of the Legionaries, who are often described as militaristic, their son will only see his family a few times a year over the next decade. Even after he is ordained, he will not have the same kind of access to his family that a parish priest would — in fact, he might be sent across the globe.
"I was afraid of losing him," David Rider Sr. said. "He's been such a great influence on our family and he and I have had a lot of heart-to-heart talks. I'm really going to miss that."
For his mother, there were other issues.
"A lot of my personal life has been tied up with his dance," she said, recalling the lessons, the competitions and the proud moments in the audience.
"It's great sitting next to someone in the audience and saying, 'That's my son up there,' " she said. "But I guess maybe one day I'll be sitting in a church and say the same thing."
Others — mostly family friends and acquaintances — were troubled by David Rider's choice of the Legionaries. The order was founded in 1941 by the Mexican Rev. Marcial Maciel Degallado, who since the late 1990s has been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse dating back to the 1940s.
In May, after news reports surfaced the Vatican was investigating the allegations, the Holy See announced the case was closed and it would not bring a trial against the priest. Maciel, now 85, had been the subject of a Vatican investigation in the 1950s for alleged drug use, trafficking and misuse of funds. He was suspended from his duties as head of the order until he was cleared. More recently, the book "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II" included allegations by former Legionaries that the order practiced mind-control.
David Rider said he was drawn to the order's strictly traditional approach.
"The purpose of priests is to teach right and wrong," he said, summing up his views.
He dismissed the scandals around the founder as slanderous attempts to ruin his reputation. He called the Legionaries "such a good order, such a holy order." The sexual abuse scandals that have tainted the Catholic Church in America have only strengthened his conviction in what he is about to do.
"People need to see normal, healthy, happy men becoming priests, who love the church and are not going in because they are running away from something," he said.
It was certainly not an easy sell on tour. Many of his castmates tried to talk him out of his decision. Some who were gay had been embittered by their own experiences with the church and its position on homosexuality. For them, it was unthinkable.
"It was really a clash of ideologies," Kevin Leary, the production's dance captain and the future seminarian's roommate, said, describing how David Rider stood out in an overwhelmingly secular milieu. While most of the cast slept in after partying late, he would attend an early-morning Mass. Often, he would hop in a cab to make confession before curtain call.
"It's very easy to say, 'How can you throw away a dance career that is limitless,' " Leary said, "but it would be really awful if he didn't follow his dream."
David Rider said he does not know whether he'll dance again, although he hopes so.
"If God is the way I think he is," he said, "he'll find a way for me to dance."