Skaters de­fend­ing a dy­ing sport

Roller- skat­ing rinks are closing down in big cities; those that sur­vive are fi­nan­cially strapped

The Witness - Wheels - - FEATURES HEALTH -

ON a frigid win­ter night, snow blan­kets hun­dreds of cars in the dark park­ing lot out­side the Rink on Chicago’s south side.

But things are cooking in­side the age­ing roller rink. Un­der coloured lights, a huge crowd of skaters wear­ing black leather and four- wheel skates shoots around the wooden floor do­ing dance rou­tines in groups, or solo twirls, ax­els and ac­ro­bat­ics to R’ n B remixes.

The Rink and a hand­ful of other decades- old skat­ing venues put Chicago at the cen­tre of a vi­brant African- Amer­i­can sub­cul­ture of ur­ban roller­skate danc­ing that stretches from At­lanta to Detroit and from Los An­ge­les to New York.

While main­stream roller- skat­ing has been on a long decline, a new gen­er­a­tion of skaters, in­clud­ing 28- year- old Josh Smith — whose skat­ing han­dle is “Bat­man” — travel a cir­cuit of rinks around the coun­try to com­pete and show off their moves.

“Skat­ing is on my mind 24/ 7, in my dreams. I al­ways try to raise the bar,” says the goa­teed Smith, who has com­peted all over the United States and in Eng­land, and draws in­flu­ences from arts such as ball­room danc­ing and the Brazil­ian mar­tial art capoeira.

Out on the floor Smith spins, jumps, break dances and does splits. Pur­ple lights glow un­der his skates. At the end of a long night of skat­ing in Chicago, at 1 am he jumps in a car with skat­ing bud­dies and heads to Alabama to com­pete at a na­tional gath­er­ing known as a skate jam.

The evolv­ing skate dance form does not even have a name, and each city has its par­tic­u­lar style. Vet­eran Chicago skaters call them­selves J. B. skaters — af­ter remixed James Brown songs that are a lo­cal sta­ple. Other skaters in the United States will recog­nise J. B. skaters for their old- fash­ioned, loosely tied black boots and spe­cific moves such as the big wheel and crazy legs.

The scene is in­tense and vi­brant, but it is also threat­ened as roller- skat­ing rinks close down in many big cities. And those that sur­vive are fi­nan­cially strapped.

“We’re de­fend­ing a dy­ing sport,” says Buddy Alexander ( 36), one of the own­ers of Rich City Skate in a Chicago sub­urb. He and his brother Mark ( 31) bought the rink in 2006 and have worked hard to keep it alive. Other ven­er­a­ble rinks such as the Loop and the Rain­bow Roller Rink have shut down.

“There are a lot of rinks closing around the coun­try be­cause they aren’t open to this com­mu­nity. In many big cities, there are no rinks left,” says Dyana Win­kler, who is work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about the skat­ing cul­ture called United Skates.

The roller- skat­ing tra­di­tion is four gen­er­a­tions deep in cities such as Chicago. De­spite rink clo­sures, the cul­ture is get­ting stronger as styles evolve, says Win­kler’s co- direc­tor, Tina Brown.

Chicago teacher Lavonne Jones ( 46), who has skated most of her life, says her par­ents, her chil­dren and her grand­chil­dren all skate. “We’re keep­ing the tra­di­tion alive.

“Skat­ing was our refuge. If we didn’t have skat­ing we’d be dead or on drugs or in a gang,” says Jones, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of many fel­low skaters in Chicago, a city plagued by shoot­ings and homi­cides.

In Jan­uary, Jones con­tin­ued her tra­di­tional weekly out­ings to the Rink even though she had lost her beloved skates in a house fire, seek­ing com­fort from the close- knit skat­ing com­mu­nity.

Some 10 to 15 years ago, a skat­ing re­nais­sance be­gan — aided by the rise in so­cial me­dia — as the dif­fer­ent skate scenes around the coun­try con­nected and started trav­el­ling to each other’s cities.

Jeremy Stephens ( 38) has skated in 28 dif­fer­ent states at na­tional skate par­ties, and he pro­motes a ma­jor na­tional gath­er­ing of hun­dreds of skaters at the Rink each year on Hal­loween.

Stephens says he got hooked on skat­ing eight years ago when a friend sug­gested it would be health­ier than night­club hop­ping.

“It’s an out­let. It’s a life­style,” Stephens says. “When I started skat­ing, I wasn’t get­ting into trou­ble any­more. It be­comes a fam­ily.”

PHOTO: REUTERS

A man roller- skates at Rich City Skate in Rich­ton Park, Illi­nois. While main­stream roller- skat­ing has been on a long decline, a new gen­er­a­tion of skaters travel a cir­cuit of rinks around the coun­try to com­pete and show off their moves.

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