In California, where life aspires to the texture of a ripe avocado, some people have even taken the lumps and bumps out of walking; no more flat-footed, dotted-line locomotion; laced into roller skates, the day is one unending Möbius strip, an eight-wheel glide that turns the pedestrian into a human convertible, with the top down all the way. “Having wheels,” after all, is the ageold teen dream, and on the U.S. West Coast there are now mothers on roller skates who wheel their babies in strollers, and, in hilly San Francisco, rollercommuters. “There are some people here,” says San Francisco TV producer Skip Blumberg, “who just . . . wear skates.”
Roller skates have come a long way from the clumsy, clamp-on noisy toys invented by a Belgian, Joseph Merlin, in 1760. With the new polyurethane wheels, wider and quieter than the old wheels (a development borrowed from skateboards) sometimes attached to “jump-bar” plates that take the shock out of leaps like a suspension rod, the roller skate, for the connoisseur, is now a set of components: boots, plates and wheels that come in jujube colors. The whole outfit can cost anywhere from $50 to $160, and customized, up to $1,000. It’s like stereo for the feet, and from the boardwalks of Venice, California, roller-skating has spread to New York, where roller-disco is raging, and now it’s beginning to shake its well behaved booty in Canadian rinks too. One out of three records played at Toronto’s Terrace rink is allowed to be “upbeat,” and when the DJ plays The Freak, the pulse of the rink leaps visibly.
In North Vancouver, a mirrored ball winks over the Stardust rink seven nights a week, and in Winnipeg, the last of three new teen-oriented skating centres has just opened. The new Saint’s McPhillips Roller Skating Centre is owned by three Canadian partners and Peter Boo, an advertising executive from St. Paul, Minnesota, who believes in roller rinks. “If you’re 14 and don’t play hockey, up till now there hasn’t
been much to do,” he says. Boo envisions 24 to 26 new Saint’s rinks in the next few years, with most of the expansion in Canada. In the past five years, membership in the Roller Skating Rink Operators of America organization has grown from 550 to over 1,600.
“Plates are the most important part of the skate,” says Rosalyn Scott, a tall, black, New York roller skater who performs on “roller-disco” night, Tuesdays, at Studio 54’s crosstown competition, Xenon. “They’re like the body of a car.” Rosalyn has been skating for 10 years,
one of the vanguard of roller skaters who work out of Good Skates, a shop in Central Park that rents to the growing hordes of Sunday skaters that roll past the runners in the park. The new wheels are good for skating indoors or outside.
“The old, open-bearing plastic wheels gave you sloppy action,” says Noel Hardy, lord of the rinks in Vancouver. “The wheels wouldn’t grip the floor well. The difference between the old wheels and the new ones is like getting off a backwater dirt road and driving down a newly paved highway.” Hardy sees the wave moving north; “We’re on the brink,” he says. “It always takes about two years for something that starts in L.A. to get across the border. Hardy, who runs the three major rinks in the Vancouver area, is quick to distinguish his outlets from the old ’40s image of the roller-arena as a hangout for hoods on wheels. “Our places have carpeted lobbies, and $20,000 sound systems,” says Hardy. “We don’t like to call them roller rinks anymore. We call them skating centres.”
In New York, roller-disco moved uptown from its origins in Brooklyn rinks like the Empire Rollerdome, where skaters, mostly black, have taken disco to the third power: dancing on wheels at 20 mph. Watching the 400 skaters wheel around the rink on a Saturday night, in cut-off jeans or a smattering of highfantasy apparel, the motion has the
three-part fascination of a midway ride that spins, accelerates and slowly revolves on three axes at once. Every skater is a drummer, with the feet keeping the bass line rolling, and the body tacking the rhythms. On Lexington Ave. in Manhattan, a teen-ager on roller skates weaves in and out of the stream of yellow cabs. He makes good time, too.
“Roller-skating keeps you loose, relaxed and fit,” says Butch Ford, who works in Macy’s new fourth-floor Roller Disco Shop, and plans a spring trip on roller skates right across America, playing the guitar. Looking fairly loose and relaxed in a red hairnet and billowing red nylon pants, Butch sells skates and the bright, tight, good-humored roller fashions: turquoise Spandex
pants, fuchsia tutus, bumblebee stripes. However, it’s mostly the new converts, slowly wiggling around the rinks backward, who enjoy the roller fashions; veteran skaters, carving great slow Zs through the crowds as they wheel around the rinks, don’t wear their fantasy, they skate it. “It’s like flying,” says Marion Green, who teaches skating, at $10 an hour, at the Village Roller Rink. “All you have to do is get into the music and you’re part of the crowd. Roller-skating is a very communal thing. You can skate alone, with a partner, or in a line. I think there is a skater spirit, and it’s peaceful and friendly.” It’s true; roller skaters and nightclubs are an uneasy mix (“It’s sort of weird to see people at Xenon’s rolling around with drinks in their hands,” says Green). Even the disco rinks are palpably wholesome. Roller-skating, after all, has long been what teen-agers do to while away the years before reaching the drinking age; now, jaded adults are also discovering that on eight wheels, you feel taller, smoother, and ineffably cool—the rolling facsimile of a double scotch, with the added allure of being better for you.
The Saint’s chain of roller-skating centres may be the start of something
big in Canada. Thunder Bay teen-agers (possibly sick of the sight of cross-country skis) flocked to their new Saint’s rink, and Saint’s centres have opened in Fort Frances and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, with others under construction in Brandon, Manitoba, Edmonton and St. Catharines, Ont. For a low admission price that usually includes skate rental, it’s something the whole family can do—which is much easier said than done these days.
At the Terrace rink in Toronto, Marcel Ouellet, a.k.a. “Rubberlegs,” cuts a dapper swath through the Saturday night skaters. In a short burst of “rhythm skating” (frowned on by the management) his feet engage in a mysterious wrestling match, tumbling around each other like socks in a dryer. His skates seem to move nonchalantly, but he’s moving fast.
“I float,” says Marcel, who has been skating at the Terrace for 12 years, wearing his black Citation 200 skates with the tongue cut out and holes punched in the sides for ventilation. “I don’t drink or take drugs or anything like that. This is my pastime. It’s company.” Even the appeal of New York roller-disco is that increasingly exotic quality, innocence.
At the Terrace, they still clear the floor for waltz numbers. The lights turn blue and low, the DJ drops the needle on the Great Pretender, and the couples— fat with tall, teen-agers with combs sticking out of their back pockets paired with grandmothers in pink skating skirts—sweep by like dreams. The waltzers never seem to fall, or fight. It’s a better world on roller skates, apparently. While it may have the dancetrance connotations of all things Californian, for Canadians buried in scarves and mitts and five-pound winter boots, roller-skating is one way to feel light and free in the winter.
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