For Susan Avery, founding the New York Pacemakers senior dance team fulfilled a lifelong dream. As a child, she'd always wanted to dance, though tight family finances kept her from taking lessons.
When she became a journalist, her hunger for dance still hadn't diminished. "I started taking lessons everywhere I could. Tap, salsa, African, ballet, modern—I took everything." At that point, it was a hobby, but she couldn't shake her dream: "I always wanted to be a professional dancer."
In 2017, she got her chance. Avery auditioned for and landed a spot on the Surf Squad, the official dance team of the Brooklyn Cyclones Minor League Baseball team. Despite being much older than the rest of the team, Avery, now 59, had the dance chops, and the squad loved her.
But it didn't work out as planned. "A few weeks into it, the social-media bashing started," she says. "It was really hurtful and horrible. They were insulting my looks and my age and 'what is she doing?' " At the season's end, she turned in her uniform thinking her performing days were over.
Afra Hines teaches the team a new routine.
Courtesy New York Pacemakers
But soon, she got the idea to launch her own dance team, specifically for seniors. "I put an ad in Backstage and Playbill, and I said, 'If you're over 50, come.' " A friend who was a former Knicks City dancer volunteered to be the choreographer, they held an audition, and the New York Pacemakers were born.
Their slogan, "We dance with heart," sums up their goal. "We may not be the best dancers out there, but we're here because we love dancing. We really do put our hearts out there," says Avery. "That's the point: You don't have to be a professional on Broadway to be able to get off the couch and just move and inspire other people."
The team ranges in age from 50 to 81—and they proudly sport their birth years on the back of their jerseys. They're a diverse bunch, including a former Rockette, two therapists, a Wall Street professional, several teachers, a developmental specialist, two professors, a U.S Air Force Vietnam veteran, a yoga teacher and a clergy member.
Team members show off their birth years in rehearsal.
Courtesy New York Pacemakers
In an ironic twist of events, the troupe made its debut performance last summer at—you guessed it—a Brooklyn Cyclones game. "The crowds love us," says Avery. "There were overwhelming, rousing cheers from the audience. When I came off the field, I just cried because it was so validating to everything I've always wanted."
At a recent rehearsal, the studio was buzzing with energy. A few newbies were there for a trial, and the troupe was learning a routine by guest choreographer and Broadway performer Afra Hines, who most recently appeared in Hadestown. Her mother, Mary Anne Holliday, is a member of the Pacemakers and a former professional dancer herself.
The team has a flair for the dramatic, not to mention a great sense of humor: Hines had choreographed a tongue-in-cheek number set to a mix of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" and the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated."
When rehearsal wrapped, Avery reflected on the past few years: "I can't believe that at this age—I'm going to be 60 in a couple of months—I've been able to create what I've wanted my whole life." The New York Pacemakers will be performing throughout the summer, including five appearances at Brooklyn Cyclones games.