Age ain’t nothing but a number: Pacemakers dance crew reclaims the definition of ‘old’

Pacemakers Rehearsal
Roger Nick, 76, right, leads a rap during a rehearsal for The Pacemakers.
Photo by Paul Frangipane

1939, 1957 and 1964 are just some of the years that adorn the back of the Pacemakers’ jerseys as they descend onto the field at Maimonides Park in Coney Island to perform for a crowd already on their feet.

The senior dance crew has become a fan-favorite during their performances between innings at Brooklyn Cyclones games, a far cry from Pacemakers founder and “chief heart murmur” Susan Avery’s first foray into public performance in 2017.

“I was 57 years old at the time and had a great experience,” Avery recalled, but she said that joy was short-lived after footage of the performance was shared online and attracted hateful comments that made her believe her dancing days were behind her.

“I found out the definition of cyberbullying, let’s put it that way,” she said. “One person after another was like, ‘Who is that old bag?’ ‘What is she doing?’ ‘Who does she think she is?’ ‘She should kill herself.’ I was mortified.”

At her daughter’s suggestion, Avery brushed off the negativity and decided to set up her own dance troupe for seniors. She enlisted a friend, a former captain of the New York Knicks dancers, to help get things into formation.

The following year, the Pacemakers’ first public performance was back at the site of Avery’s last dance, the backlash still fresh in her mind.

“We were waiting in the area to go on and I got extremely nervous where I didn’t remember the choreography, I was completely blanking,” she said, but she mustered up the courage to go on with the show thanks to the support of her fellow dancers. “I was nervous that the crowd was not going to like us. Brooklynites are very honest, and I was really, really nervous about that.”

Their dance ended with a standing ovation from the audience, which Avery describes as a life-changing moment for her. “I was in complete shock,” she said. “I’m not a crier, but when we came off the field, I burst into tears.”

Susan Avery, the founder of The Pacemakers.Photo by Paul Frangipane

Now, six seasons in, the Pacemakers’ schedule is fully booked with performances at public and private events around New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, on top of requests to appear around the globe.

Avery credits the success of the team to the 36 dancers who are on a shared crusade with her to prove that “old people are not irrelevant.”

“We’re on this mission to break stereotypes about the word old,” Avery explained. “We want to reclaim the word old, just like our LGBTQIA+ friends reclaim the word queer. They are our role models. We’re not insulted by the word old. Somebody calls me old. I say ‘thank you,’ because we are and that’s why we print out birth years on the back of our jerseys, loud and proud for all to see.”

The Pacemakers are made up of dancers in their ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, some of whom have danced all their lives, while others have limited experience and wanted to take on the challenge in their golden years.

Bay Ridge resident David Moseder, 74, is among the crew members with a limited dance background but dove headfirst out of his comfort zone and into the challenge, if only to bolster his resume as an actor.

“I get more and more confident as I’ve gone on,” he said. “These people are all wonderful and everybody’s rooting for you.”

For other members, that encouragement can be a family affair. New Jersey siblings Roger “Big Rog’” Nick, 76, and Denise Budzinksi, 73, have been cheering each other on their whole lives and continue to do so on the Pacemakers, even when sibling rivalry creeps in.

Budzinski, a former Rockette, encouraged her brother to get into tap dancing at an early age, which led to a lifelong love of performing in theater, commercials, and most recently in a hip-hop dance crew. So, when Big Rog got the call from Avery about the formation of the Pacemakers, he quickly enlisted Budzinski to join as he knew she was eager to get back into dancing.

“I’m not surprised that we’re doing this together, we’ve always been very close,” Budzinski said of Big Rog, who added that their teammates enjoy watching them compete to see who can learn the choreography the fastest.

“We bust each other’s chops and they get a kick out of it. They really get a kick out of it,” Big Rog said of the camaraderie among the crew, which he hopes inspires other seniors when they see them “having a ball.”

“That’s probably one of our main goals that we want to bring across to people when they see us perform,” he said. “Get off of that butt, even if you don’t dance. Just walk, do something, and have a good time doing it.”

Brother and sister, Denise Budzinski, 73, and Roger ‘Big Rog’ Nick, 76.Photo by Paul Frangipane

For more seasoned dancers like Renie Reiss — the eldest member of the group at 85 — being a part of the team has helped her shed the last of her inhibitions about aging.

“For years, I would not tell anybody my age,” she said, noting that she was finally forced to reckon with that sensitive subject head-on when she got her first Pacemakers jersey with 1939 on the back. “I’m accepting it more, it is a matter of letting go of various notions, like whether I’ll be perceived differently if people know how old I am.”

The weekly practice Brooklyn Paper attended on June 15 was abuzz with chatter about the attendance of Reiss, whose busy dance and personal schedule means she is not always available for rehearsals or performances. If she’s not riding around Manhattan on her kick scooter, Reiss is at her new line dancing group or practicing her favorite style of dance, the Argentine Tango.

“Until I can’t move anymore, I’ll be dancing something,” she joked, crediting her seasoned dancing career with eating right and the joy she finds in movement. “It’s as much mental as it is the physical.”

That joy in dancing was on full display at the group’s recent rehearsal, but the three-hour practice is not all fun and games.

Renie Reiss, 85, the oldest member of The Pacemakers, shows Brooklyn Paper how it’s done.Photo by Paul Frangipane

As group choreographer Marissa Montanez explained, the Pacemakers are a “precision dance team” overall.

Montanez, a lawyer by trade and the owner of the dance fitness business Popography, has been with the Pacemakers for the past year, collaboratively choreographing dances with the group while considering the dancers’ mobility and abilities.

“Instead of giving them a routine that’s too hard, I want to give them choreography that makes them shine,” she said. “And they do such fun routines that really get the crowd involved. It’s really more about that and the energy and that rapport with the crowd than it is about doing overly complicated dance moves. But for their age, they’re really moving. They’re really doing some difficult stuff.”

The choreographer said she often finds herself wowed by the team’s commitment.

“It’s really inspiring to see people who are 60, 70, 80 years old, with this level of energy, with this level of drive and passion towards something,” she said, adding that she hopes to one day be a Pacemaker. “They’re so talented, they’re so fun to be around. I really just enjoy it so much.”

After perfecting their moves, the last fifteen minutes of rehearsals are dedicated to learning and filming the latest Tik-Tok dance trend for their budding social media presence. Last Saturday, the team was introduced to the musical stylings up rising star Chappell Roan, and had her “Hot To Go” dance break down in five minutes flat.

The Pacemakers get ‘Hot To Go’ for Tik Tok.Photo by Paul Frangipane

Avery credits the group’s social media with reaching seniors around the world who have been inspired by their attitude to life and dance.

“Every single day, I’m getting messages through Instagram or through our website asking us to come to places like Sao Paolo or Ireland,” she said, adding that she hopes to one day take advantage of such offers.

The team’s fearless leader has been bankrolling rehearsals and other expenses herself since receiving some money when her aunt passed away, but the funds are finite, she said — and paid membership is absolutely off the table.

“I don’t want to charge anybody. I never want money to get in the way of joy,” she said. “Our next thing is that we’re hoping to get sponsors and grants so that we can travel and go to all these places and bring the joy that we’re doing here in the United States.”

The Pacemakers, a senior citizen dance team, pose for a photo during a rehearsal at Salsa Sabrosa in Midtown, Manhattan on Saturday, June 15, 2024.Photo by Paul Frangipane

The Pacemakers hold auditions for new members every year, and don’t require applicants to be the best dancers. The only prerequisite is that they have a good heart (not in the medical sense).

“When you sign the agreement to be on the Pacemakers, we have a section called the kindness clause, and you have to agree that you’re going to be supportive and professional, and compassionate to your fellow dancers,” she said. “The most important thing to me when we bring new people on the team is they have a good heart. The dancing we can fix — that’s what Marissa is for.”

The Pacemakers will perform next at the June 20 Brooklyn Cyclones game, and possibly at an upcoming Super Bowl halftime show if Avery has her way.