Roller-Skating, An Old-School Refuge For Black Americans, Is Getting A Revival

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Roller-skating is part of the fabric of what it means to be a Black American. One man works to make sure the pastime endures for another generation.
By Maya Eaglin and Nicolle Majette

The mastermind behind The Roller Wave, a traveling roller disco pop-up, is trying to revive an activity that was once a cornerstone of leisure and kinship in Black communities across the U.S.

Harry Martin, its 33-year-old founder, describes roller disco as “a party on wheels.” His latest project, The Roller Wave House BK, is a long-term installation set up in Brooklyn, New York, that pays homage to “old-school” roller-skating rinks with modern amenities, like a live podcast space and art installations.

Harry Martin, founder of The Roller Wave, laces up his skates in a Harlem Park.

Harry Martin, the founder of The Roller Wave, laces up his skates in a Harlem park.Janie Barber / The Roller Wave

But before Black Americans could explore their love of roller-skating, their mere presence in roller rinks was barred in those segregated spaces, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. In the 1960s, only one night a week was set aside for Black skaters in the rink, and it was typically dubbed “Soul Night” or “Martin Luther King Jr. Night,” Martin said.

“This is Black culture, Latino, Latina culture going to these skating rinks,” Martin said. “We’re the ones that brought the vibe to roller-skating. Back in the 1940s it was just, like, ballroom, ice-skating-looking dancing. But once you had that African American touch to it, we added that disco dance, that feeling to it.”

Without access to rinks, Black skaters took to the streets, where they met fewer restrictions. Places such as Central Park in New York City and Venice Beach in Los Angeles became hot spots for Black skaters. They were sanctuaries, places where people could simply express themselves and have fun. Starting around the early 1970s, with the help of legal integration, roller-skating became synonymous with disco, especially among young Black people coming of age in the wake of the core Civil Rights Movement.

As skating became more popular across the country, different cities adopted distinctive styles of skating. At some skating sessions, the DJ announces a “roll call” in which those styles can be put on display.

New York and New Jersey are known for partner skating, as well as trains and trios. JB style, named after musician James Brown, originated in Chicago. Fast backward is a style used by Philadelphia skaters. In the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, “snapping” is a popular style. Other cities, such as Detroit, St. Louis and Los Angeles, also have distinct styles.

Starting at age 6, Martin grew up skating at the infamous Empire Roller Rink in Brooklyn. The rink opened in 1941 and later became known as the birthplace of roller disco. Empire brought joy to generations of skaters, but, as the scene flourished, it also became a breeding place for violence. Rinks like Empire and Skate Key in the Bronx dealt with fatal shootings.

Roller Wave House BK includes a 9,000 square-foot rink within the massive 24,000 square-foot space.

Roller Wave House BK includes a 9,000-square-foot rink within the massive 24,000-square-foot space.The Roller Wave“Growing up in the late ’90s, early 2000s, Brooklyn was notorious for violence. So going to the roller-skating rink, like even just going there, you had to protect yourself in the streets,” Martin said.

The violence was one reason several rinks closed their doors for good in New York City. Not long before Empire closed in 2007, Skate Key shut down in 2006 amid allegations that it was responsible for the increase in violence. Another popular destination in New York City’s West Village, The Roxy, closed the following year, leaving Martin and many other skaters with limited indoor options.