“Look at that dude on the floor.” Chandler points to a tall man in a red shirt. “That’s 30 years of skating right there.”
The dude on the floor seems oblivious to the pairs of skaters whirling around him. They are the chorus to his solo. He spreads into a split, sinking close to the floor, then pulls himself back upright. He wraps his arms close to his chest and spins in a tight circle.
Chandler watches in appreciation. Performances like this have brought him back to the Rollerdrome Thursday after Thursday for years. Here, at the Rollerdrome, folks don’t skate, Chandler explains.
“We’re rolling,” Chandler says. “It’s like that movie, like ‘Roll Bounce.’ ”
“Roll Bounce,” released in 2005, is set in the African-American skating world of the ’70s. When a neighborhood rink closes, a group of friends heads to another rink across town, where a master skater — whose flowing cape looks like it’s right out of James Brown’s closet — reigns supreme. The climactic skate-off features jumps and spins that’d be at home in an Olympic ice-skating competition.
Skaters at the Rollerdrome keep their wheels on the ground; rink management prohibits wild antics. But the roll is smooth and the accent is on style. Like dancers, each skater adds his or her own spice to the mix: the way the feet cross over each other, the swing of the arms, the lift of the torso, or the way the entire body floats on wheels.
Whatever it is, folks at the Rollerdrome are not content to go round and round and round.
Right now, everybody is in a line doing the Cupid Shuffle. They move to the right, to the right, to the right, to the right, then kick, kick, kick — all on skates. Twenty, 30 folks dance together in time and in rhythm.
The DJ calls “trios,” and everyone leaves the floor to find partners. When they return, it’s three abreast, arms crossing torsos. They skate diagonally, from one end of the rink to another, then turn, pivoting around the skater in the middle. It’s a straight, unadorned roll for a minute before the middle skater drops, one leg under her and the other stretched behind. Her partners remain upright; their chance to shine will come soon. One trio after another struts its stuff, expertly weaving in and out of the way of the others gliding by.
The roll brings folks from Canton, Akron, even Youngstown every Thursday night. For the past 18 years, the over-21 crowd has gathered to get their roll on at the Euclid Rollerdrome. There are other places to skate, sure. But the Rollerdrome’s weekly session lures folks who are serious about their skating. The rink doesn’t allow alcohol. And management doesn’t sell food; no one bought it when it was available. The only item on the menu is water, says owner Keith Broda. “They didn’t want to eat. They just wanted to skate.”
If you ask why folks are so devoted to Thursday at the Rollerdrome, you’ll get lots of answers: It’s good, clean fun; it’s great, full-body exercise; the regulars have turned into a family. Chandler doesn’t bother to figure out why folks come to the rink. He just knows that they do.
“This is what’s going on: You’ve got people driving 40 miles through blizzards to get here,” Chandler says, rising to get back on the floor.
Although the first roller skate was patented in France, the pastime has been part of American life since the 1800s. In 1863, James Plimpton patented the “quad” — the common skate with four wheels. Roller-skating began to take off at the turn of the 20th century, according to “America at Work, School and Play,” an online presentation by the Library of Congress, as Americans moved from farms to cities and employers began to relieve the harshness of the urban work environment through a shorter work week and a half-day Saturday holiday. Americans began looking for ways to enjoy their newfound leisure time. Many found roller-skating.
Coincidentally, the craze grew just as America was dividing into separate societies: one black, the other white. Most facilities were segregated, including rinks. Out of that separation, a unique African-American style developed, according to Tasha Klusmann, president of Our Family Skate Association in Washington, D.C.
The association, which is compiling an oral history of African-American skating, has gathered stories from skaters who competed in a black competitive circuit during the late ’40s and early ’50s. In Cleveland, she says, 150 youngsters frequented the Pla-Mor, a “race-owned” rink at East 106th Street and Cedar Avenue.
“[African-Americans] always add our flavor to everything that we get a hold of,” Klusmann says. “What we bring to that is our music. We started doing things on skates that nobody else has done.
“We have created a style.”
The style of the groove — the roll — varies, just as types of music differed from city to city. Detroit skaters are known for gliding diagonally across the floor, she says. “In Detroit, the DJ would say, ‘Open house! Break out the move!’ ” Klusmann says. “The slide showed that you were an advanced skater.”
Chicago has its JB style: moves inspired by the dancing and music of James Brown. “[Chicago skaters] developed a whole series of power moves: splits, jump, on their toes,” she explains. “It’s the kind of style that flows around the rink. You know when you see them.”
The roll of Ohio skaters is even subtler. Although the state is known for its bounce, it’s tough to generalize. “In Ohio, they have different styles for different cities,” she says. “There’s the bounce, but you’ve got to be careful when you say it.”
Ivan, a Rollerdrome skater from Akron, gropes to explain the differences among skaters.
“Cleveland has a fancier way of doing things; they have a different type of shuffle,” says Ivan, who didn’t want to give his last name. “Akron has a slow bounce. It’s like a bounce to the beat. It’s hard to describe. It’s just something that we do.”
Some of the moves and formations at the Rollerdrome have been around a long, long time. Take the Sadie Hawkins dance. In a Sadie Hawkins, the women and men pair off and skate in parallel lines. When the leader blows a whistle, each woman moves up to skate with the man in front of her. The skating formation has been around since rinks had live organ music, instead of disc jockeys, says Broda, the rink owner.
Sadie Hawkins and the men’s version, the Kentucky Steal, hint at the romance of rolling around a rink, arm in arm with that special partner. But they’re both too slow for Pete Williams and his partner, Tondawa Reynolds. When the disc jockey calls the formation, the pair rolls over to the benches circling the rink floor.
“When they do the Sadie Hawkins, personally to me, it’s for the old people to get out there and touch each other,” Williams says, wiping the sweat from his brow. “When we come out here, we come out for aerobic exercise.”
“This is for the old crowd, who’s winded,” Reynolds says, taking a sip of her drink. “They ain’t got no energy, and they need to slow down and take a breath.”
Williams and Reynolds hop off the bench when they hear the opening notes of “Ladies Night” by Kool and the Gang. Soon, they’re skating with some of those old folks, who have seemingly caught enough breath to groove to this ’80s hit.
The couple are among the few skaters who use inline skates instead of “quads” or four-wheelers. When the music is hot and pumping, they crouch into a speed-skater’s stance and fly around the rink. Sometimes, they lean back, lift one leg in the air, and roll across the floor on one foot. They don’t fall. And they don’t crash into other skaters.
Meanwhile, James “Slim” Williams is rolling solo, balancing on one foot, then another, as he swings his legs in time to the music. Most days of the week, he’s lacing up his boots and wheels. Wednesday mornings and Sunday nights he goes to the skating rink run by the Word Church in Warrensville Heights. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he’s at the Rollerdrome. It’s his favorite spot.
“They have a marvelous floor,” he says.
He’s one of the rink’s oldest skaters. At 65, he’s been skating more than 50 years. He plans to roll across the floor as long as his legs will carry him.
“I love it,” he says. “I’d rather skate than eat.”
To see our multimedia slide show from the Rollerdrome, click here.