It’s a Tuesday evening at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Surrey, and PREP students and their parents are streaming out of the school. In the background, hip hop music pumps from the parish gym.
Following the music to its source, one finds 40 teenage boys engrossed in learning a hip hop routine. These young men are auditioning for a spot on the Brotherhood Crew, an all-male dance team founded in the parish.
While the young men focus on their routine, an instructor is leading a contemporary dance class for a teen duo. Up on the stage behind the thick, velvet curtains, a tap class is in full swing.
Beth Reyes points out five young men dressed in black who are scrutinizing the Brotherhood hopefuls. With a smile she says, “they look like gangsters but they’re really very humble.”
Reyes would know. The Brotherhood Crew is a
competitive dance team that makes up part of OLGC’s Dance and Theatre Arts
Ministry, usually referred to as Praise Team. Reyes started Praise Team in 1997
and has known many of the “gangster”-looking young men since they were kids in
her dance classes.
One of them is Michael Delleva, a 22-year-old OLGC parishioner who has been dancing since he was 11 years old.
Delleva’s mom got him to join one of the parish choirs, and after spending time there he saw one of his friends dancing with Praise Team. That friend invited him to take lessons with Praise Team.
Delleva was hooked. He learned different styles of dance and got experience in musical theatre. He eventually joined the Brotherhood Crew and was part of the team that competed in August on the TV show World of Dance, which features Jennifer Lopez as a judge.
The experience opened Delleva’s eyes. “I
didn’t know that you could have an agent and get work doing this. I learned
that all here,” he said.
Delleva got an agent, took some classes outside Praise Team, and landed roles in three films. His latest, a Disney film, comes out in 2019. He spends his weeknights at the OLGC gym, teaching the next batch of Brotherhood dancers.
Being with Praise Team was about more than dancing for Delleva. “It allowed me to allow my life to still be Christ centered ... it allowed me to stick with my faith,” he said.
Every dance class at Praise Team starts and ends with prayer, as Reyes said, because “God gave us talents, and we show appreciation by doing our best.” Competitive teams make time to go to Mass together when they are on the road for competitions.
Dancers are also taught to express give thanks in other ways.
Reyes said she and the other instructors teach "the proper use of music (and) how to choose appropriate music.” Every dance piece, choreographed by Praise Team, has a positive, biblically inspired message.
The four shows a year that Praise Team puts on help raise funds for a charitable project. During the 2017-2018 school year the money from shows helped build a learning centre in the Philippines. Throughout the year the dancers also collect food and supplies for the St. Vincent de Paul Society and Agape Street Ministry.
Alicia Soo is a 25-year-old Praise Team graduate. She credits the school for helping her stick with dancing.
Soo started dancing when she was four at another studio in the Lower Mainland. By Grade 10 she was ready to give up dancing altogether. Her instructor, who happened to be a Praise Team graduate, suggested she check it out.
“I watched their year-end show, and I saw their teams at competitions. They were different from traditional studios,” said Soo. “They just had a different aura, there’s no other way to say it.”
Being Christian, she was comfortable praying before class and even attending Mass with her teammates. It was a refreshing change from other studios and made her very aware that “we’re all connected,” she said.
After joining Praise Team, Soo continued dancing competitively. She said she also learned about her leadership abilities and was able to start teaching. She offered hip hop at local elementary schools and still teaches tap at Praise Team.
“I probably would have quit dancing after that other studio ... and I wouldn’t have had the last 10 years of dancing,” she said.
Reyes launched Praise Team shortly after immigrating to Canada from the Philippines in the mid-90s. She was a dancer and dance teacher but didn’t know what to do with her skills in her new home country. Her husband and friends from church encouraged her to open a dance studio.
She decided to go for it, but was adamant about one thing, “If I have to share my talent it has to be for the greater glory of God.”
So, Reyes, who attended a different parish at the time, approached her pastor. He was supportive of dance classes for kids with a faith-teaching element woven in. That first year she had eight students.
At the year-end recital, parishioners from OLGC invited Reyes to make the parish, run by Salesian priests and nuns, her home. Praise Team’s approach fit well with the Salesian philosophy of education and ministry.
The Salesian approach to education relies on adults walking with young people as they learn how to be upstanding people. Music, theatre, and sports are a common tool in Salesian ministry.
Today the Praise Team has about 200 students a year and offers more than 30 different classes. To meet demand, Reyes hires alumni from Praise Team's competitive program to teach.
Yet Reyes is reluctant to take much credit for Praise Team’s successes on and off the dance floor. “It was probably because God wanted it to happen,” she said.