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The N.Y.P.D. Dance Team Walks the Beat and Feels It Too

Officer Lauren Pagán looked at the line of dancers in the overheated cafeteria at a Queens high school on a recent Monday night and frowned.

They were gyrating through moves choreographed to “Mamacita,” a pulsating, Reggaeton-inflected song by the Black Eyed Peas and Ozuna. She had told the dancers to count to eight as they moved through the steps, but they were dancing in silence. The hip jerks, arm sweeps and knee lifts appeared graceful, but to her, the six women in front of her looked out of sync.

“Nobody’s listening around here, I see,” Officer Pagán, the vice president of the New York Police Department Dance Team, said. She started the music again and ordered the dancers to count. This time, they obeyed.

The seven-officer team has mastered hip-hop and salsa and is playing around with bachata and bhangra, the fast-paced, energetic movements drawn from the traditional folk dance of India’s Punjab region. The group is figuring out how to fold in step and pom, where dancers wave pompons while synchronizing their moves.

But what they really need is recruits to fill out a robust, diverse roster of at least two dozen dancers who can travel and compete against other groups, ideally other officers (although they would be happy to dance off against paramedics and firefighters).

The dance team, which was formed in 2022, is among about four dozen competitive groups within the department that include traditionally macho squads like N.Y.P.D. Paint Ball, the N.Y.P.D. Rugby Football Club and the N.Y.P.D. Pistol Team.

Department employees have been branching out. There is a chess club, yoga is popular and there is interest in starting a reading group and even a knitting circle, said Inspector Mark Wachter. He leads the department’s health and wellness unit, which approves applications. Dance team members hope that more of their brothers in blue will find the rhythm within.

“We’re not looking for top-tier professionals,” said Officer Autumn-Raine Martinez, the team’s president. “We’re just looking for people who want to dance.”Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

“We’re not looking for top-tier professionals,” said Officer Autumn-Raine Martinez, who works in crime analysis at the 108th Precinct and is the team’s president. “We’re just looking for people who want to dance.”

In September, on the department’s Fraternal Day, when all of the clubs sought recruits at the Police Academy, 33 people signed up to try out for the dance team, Officer Pagán said. Three were men trying to sign up their daughters.

Last fall, when the dancers were rehearsing their Halloween number, a school safety agent wandered into the auditorium, drawn by the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” He said he and his identical twin would be interested in joining.

“He was so excited,” Officer Pagán said. “And we never heard from him again.”

She suspects that men fear being mocked. The group’s original emblem — a teal silhouette of a lithe dancer mid-leap — did not help.

“They’re like fifth-graders,” Officer Pagán said. “They saw a ballerina and they went, ‘Ew.’”

The team redesigned its emblem — its name in simple block letters — though they kept the teal.

The groups’s schedule is intense, a tough sell for police officers who work long hours.

The dancers rehearse twice a week for two hours — Mondays at the high school and Thursdays at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Massapequa, on Long Island, where the bartender offers them screwdrivers (which they decline). They perform at parades, schools, neighborhood fairs and at halftime during games of other Police Department sports teams.

The expectation is that members will make it to rehearsals and shows, Officer Pagán, 39, said. She refuses to beg anyone to join.

“I’m damn near 40,” she said. “I’m not chasing after anybody. Is this what I’m going to have to do to get you to come to practice? I shouldn’t have to chase anyone.”

Especially given the team’s dedication.

Detective Jessica Gutierrez came to the practice at the school cafeteria while nursing a case of conjunctivitis, which she had hidden all day with sunglasses that she kept on during rehearsal. Officer Martinez arrived after working 12 hours starting at 5 a.m. Sgt. Benely Santos was scheduled to work an overnight shift at the 111th Precinct after practice.

The group rehearsed to “Mamacita” over and over again in the stifling heat.

Sergeant Santos, who manages the team’s Instagram account, said the constant repetition demanded mental toughness.

“We did a Pitbull song,” she said. “I was done. I deleted it from my phone. Goodbye, Pitbull.”

transcript

The New York Police Department Dance Team teaches its routine to a potential new member during a tryout.

”One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” “Five and six, seven and eight.“ “Your movements going to be when you slide.” “One, two, three and four, and five and six.” “Shimmy it out.” “Seven, eight.” [music] ”One, two, three, four, five, six.” Three, four, five and six, and seven, eight, and one and two.”

The New York Police Department Dance Team teaches its routine to a potential new member during a tryout.CreditCredit…Christina Kelso/The New York Times

The women range in age — from 26 to 42 — and experience. Sergeant Santos was a novice when she joined.

Officer Martinez, on the other hand, has been dancing since she was 4, but has been bedeviled by her height. As a girl, she tried out for the role of Nala in the Broadway cast of “The Lion King,” but was too tall to make the cut. Later, when she considered auditioning for the Rockettes as a teenager, she was unable to: At 5-foot-5, she was an inch shy of the minimum height requirement at the time.

Officer Alyssa Blenk, 32, who danced competitively in high school and college, joined the team when she saw pictures of it on Instagram. Her desire to be part of a squad was especially strong following the stress she was feeling as a result of the pandemic and the protests that erupted in New York in 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I need to do this,” she thought when she saw the Instagram posts.

On this night in Queens, the team had a prospect, Officer Troy Safi, 43. She walked to the back of the line and listened carefully as Officer Martinez walked her through the moves.

Soon, she was moving in unison with the other women, sliding and shimmying as though she had been practicing for weeks rather than minutes.

Officer Martinez squealed, delighted.

“You can see she had ballet training,” Officer Pagán murmured.

The officers of the N.Y.P.D. Dance Team. Back row, from left: Shaniqua Toussaint, Minoska Rodriguez, Alyssa Blenk and Sgt. Benely Santos; middle, from left: Lauren Pagán, Jessica Gutierrez; front: Autumn-Raine Martinez.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Officer Safi, who had indeed trained classically, said she hoped to dance with the group again. But a couple of weeks later, Officer Pagán said, Officer Safi told the team the schedule was too grueling.

Officer Pagán, reluctant to let such a promising dancer go, agreed to a compromise.

“She’ll have to sub in once in a while,” she said. “We want her so bad.”

The dream, Officer Pagán said, is a dedicated group whose drive would rival some of the department’s best-known teams.

Think, she said, of the N.Y.P.D. Finest Hockey Club, which packs arenas with screaming fans and has such an intense rivalry with the Fire Department team that a brawl broke out during a 2014 charity game.

The N.Y.P.D. Dance Team is not looking for a fight, Officer Martinez said. But, she added, if the Fire Department starts a dance team, “It’s on.”

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