Myriam Guevara Mann’s dance group will perform at the WYD Youth Festival. Photo courtesy Myriam Guevara Mann

Dancing for the Pope in Panama, 17 years after dancing for pope in Toronto

  • January 17, 2019
Liturgical Dance to Susan HooKong-Taylor's setting of Psalm 112, with the Taize "Laudate Omnes Gentes" refrain, danced by the Ballet de Teresa Mann Group, from Panama, during the Closing Mass of WYD2002, with Pope John Paul II, at Downsview Park in Toronto. Pedro Guevara-Mann/Youtube

Myriam Guevara Mann still remembers looking out to a crowd of 800,000 people before she danced the biggest show of her life. 

Guevara Mann was 34 years old when she and her Panamanian dance group were invited to perform at the papal Mass during World Youth Day Toronto in 2002. She had been living and dancing in Toronto for 13 years when she got a phone call from her brother, Deacon Pedro Guevara Mann, who worked as artistic director for World Youth Day Toronto. 

She sent an audition tape of her and her dance group and they were invited to perform to an international audience during the week of celebrations. It’s a memory that she still treasures to this day. 

“We danced a few feet away from Pope John Paul II. I was dancing and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I hope I don’t fall in front of the Pope,’ ” she said. 

Now, she is telling her story to a group of young Panamanian dancers she is directing to perform for World Youth Day Panama (Jan. 23-27). 

Guevara Mann, 51, is director of Escuela de Danzas Teresa Mann, a dance school in Panama City founded by her mother. Born in Panama, she moved to Toronto at 21 years old to work as a professional dancer from 1988 to 2000. She returned to Panama to take over as director of her mother’s school, but just a year later got the phone call from her brother to come back so that she could perform for St. Pope John Paul II. 

“I told (my students) this is going to be the biggest show that you will ever dance in your life because we danced to 800,000 people live (in 2002)…. And they look at us like, ‘Yeah, you know, they must be right.’ But they don’t understand because they’ve never been in it,” she said. “They don’t understand the energy of World Youth Day…. It’s just contagious energy and happiness.”

The dance group will be performing in key venues throughout the week of events. Guevara Mann and her colleagues have prepared two shows for one of the performance stages during the Youth Festival. Dancers will be performing to both Christian and secular songs that Guevara Mann said aligned with the themes of faith and love.

Her students are classically trained in ballet but the performances they are preparing are choreographed in a more modern and lyrical style of movement.

The group will also perform during an opening hymn at the welcoming Mass (Jan. 22), as well as the closing Mass (Jan. 27). They might also have a chance to perform during the Way of the Cross (Jan. 25). 

Even as the dancers prepare their routines and perfect their technique, Guevara Mann said she wants to make sure her students make the most of the whole World Youth Day experience. 

Besides their weekly rehearsals (now daily) during the past year, she and her fellow dance teachers also organized monthly catechesis for the girls with a local parish priest. They also organized two retreats. 

Guevara Mann said many of the senior dancers are competition dancers who have travelled the world to perform for world-class competitions. They understand the pressure of performing in front of large crowds, but Guevara Mann said she wants these young girls to also understand the message of God through this event. 

“They have to prepare their soul,” said Guevara Mann. “It’s not just about dancing. It’s about God.”

In 2002, Guevara Mann was already director of the dance school but she was also working as a professional dancer. She brought with her a large group of dancers and among the youngest was a 12-year-old girl who told Guevara Mann that being a part of World Youth Day felt like being Catholic was like being part of the “in crowd.”

“I have never forgotten her saying this to me,” she said. “Once we were back in Panama, this same young girl told me that at her Catholic school, the nun had gone to the class to announce there was a priest at the school, would anyone want to go to Confession? No one said anything, and all of a sudden she raised her hand. She said, ‘If I would not have gone to WYD, I would not have raised my hand. And because I did, several others followed my example.’ ”

These are the kinds of seeds, Guevara Mann said, she hopes to plant in her students today.

“As a dancer and a teacher, I have to take God wherever I go,” she said. “What I can teach my students is that if they are Catholic, they have to live their belief in everything they do. That means when they dance, when they study.”

Last modified on January 18, 2019

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