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Roller Skating, Civil Rights, and the Wheels Behind Dance Music

This archival feature from Electronic Beats, initially published in 2014, explores roller skating culture and its relationship to dance music evolution.

Published February 04, 2021. Words by A.J. Samuels.

Wheels matter for music. From roller skating grooves and the importance of punk, hardcore, and hip-hop for skateboarding to productions tailored specifically to car audio bass—the feeling of freedom that movement from wheels provides has long permeated pop-cultural consciousness.

In the beginning, there was a loop. The history of modern roller skating and its relationship to dance music is one of direction, flow, and repetition: on the most micro-level, wheels turn, allowing pivots and limbs to swerve and sway. Zooming out farther, skaters cruise at rinks counter-clockwise in an oval, over and over again, lost in rhythm but always gliding in time to an all-powerful groove laid down by the DJ. However, skating isn’t just defined by a smoothness dictated by the DJ’s predominantly groove- and loop-based music—it has long fed back into the production of dance music that’s as popular outside of the rink as inside.

And yet, within the broader pop-cultural narrative, roller skating, like disco, still receives short shrift as a fad that went out of style with pet rocks. That is, predominantly for white communities. Because roller skating in the United States—specifically “style” skating—has long been a Black American past time. And unbeknownst to most of white America, where roller rinks have long closed down or are used predominantly for “artistic” breakdance and figure skating-like competitions, skate culture in Black communities continues to be as popular today as it ever was. Yet its influence on the development of dance music, from disco, funk, and R&B, to hip-hop, crunk, Miami bass, techno, and later on, footwork, has long gone criminally under-documented—a glaring omission also reflected in the larger context of academic roller skating histories. In short, skating has been vital to both the evolution of popular American dance and dance music for decades. And to understand why is to understand the remarkable space that it occupies at the very core of American civil rights struggles.

But first, a brief history. In the forties and fifties, roller rinks, like swimming pools, amusement parks, and other spaces of recreation in America, were strongholds of de facto segregation in the North, where the second phase of large scale African American migration from the South had recently come to a close. But unlike the then newly implemented integration of the labor force and the U.S. military, which were guided by the pragmatic color-blindness of American capitalism and militarism, skating rinks were amongst the last bastions of social “leisure” spaces separating white from Black. As historian Victoria Wolcott explains in her singular work connecting roller skating and civil rights history, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America, co-ed dance and music culture at roller rinks ultimately provoked widespread fear of interracial sexuality: “In sites where leisure was consumed actively and men and women mixed, segregation invariably followed.” This intensified when, at the same time, the introduction of vinyl and the accessibility of record players revolutionized the music that was played in rinks.

In cities like Chicago and Detroit, gaudy tones of the Wurlitzer organ—the familiar hurdy-gurdy-like sound of American amusement—were replaced by early R&B à la Jimmy Forrest, Count Basie, or Duke Ellington. Suddenly, quad skates—an innovation from the original nineteenth-century inline skate design—were being used to their full potential as tools of dance to early groove and swing-based music in African American skate communities. But “Black” skate nights weren’t simply provided by white rink owners in the forties; they were hard-won through civil disobedience. Many of the first sit-ins in America protesting racial inequality were actually “skate-ins,” which took place across the northern United States a good twenty years before the mass mobilization of marchers fighting legal segregation in the South. These included the violent White City Roller Rink protests in Chicago, as well as NAACP-led rallies at the Alhambra Roller Skating Rink in Syracuse, New York, and at Harriet Island Park in St. Paul, Minnesota, amongst numerous others. And while rinks everywhere were transformed into battlegrounds in the fight for equal rights, the result, paradoxically, was often not the integration ideal, with black and white skaters gliding to a new rhythm together, but rather exclusively “Black” nights and “white” nights; or alternately, exclusively “Black” rinks, albeit often with white owners—a phenomenon that persists to this day, much to the chagrin of the African American skate community, and key figures like skate historian Tasha Klusmann.

Tasha Klusmann, a Washington D.C. native, runs the National African American Roller Skating Archive, housed at the prestigious Howard University Moorland Spingarn Research Center, which boasts hundreds of interviews with style skaters and DJs. For her, African American culture is as integral a part of roller skating history as skate history is to African American culture—a position largely ignored by historians of both. Today’s African American style skating communities across the U.S. still regularly experience difficulty in finding rinks to host larger late night “adult” parties—an obvious vestige of a historical struggle. This is also reflected in the usurpation of dance moves pioneered in black skate communities by “jam” skaters celebrated in predominantly white mainstream skate circles. For Klusmann, music and skate style are two sides of the same coin, developed in tandem with the introduction of soul, R&B, funk, and early disco into the rinks. But the marked regional differences in music played in the rinks across the country, from the fifties up through the eighties, were partially a result of the fight for independent African American radio for- mats—that is, in contrast to today’s nationalized generic music conglomerates that control the airwaves.

Klusmann recalls, “When I was a teenager, we didn’t have national radio. There were local D.C. radio stations only, so what music we liked might not have been what was going on in Detroit and New York and anyplace else. Every hub had the music it liked, and this was really the case with the black community. For D.C. in the seventies, it was Melvin Lindsey’s original Quiet Storm show on Howard University radio WHUR-FM.” With a few exceptions, notably Amy Reinink’s excellent writing on the D.C. skate scene, and a promising upcoming documentary United Skates by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, which focuses more on African American skate culture at large, little has been done on the significant influence of skate culture on dance music.

Ultimately, countless rinks in African American neighborhoods have functioned as veritable petri dishes for the regional development of dance music cultures and were often equipped with separate dancefloors (occasionally “kiddy” discos), where young performers would get their first break, and budding DJs could expand their repertoire on top of playing for the skaters. This story and the following interviews should by no means be considered an exhaustive account of the music inspired by and played for skating’s smooth glide within the rinks’ larger loop. It also shouldn’t be considered a detailed account of the relationship between race, segregation, and style skating. Those each deserve separate books and would have to include cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and St. Louis (amongst others), all of which have big skate scenes and notable musicians born from them.

Nor is the emphasis here on the act of skating or the vibrant scene itself. Instead, this is about the historical foundations of influential dance music sub-cultures. The interviews here are, barring a few notable exceptions, with DJs and producers whose reach in dance music has gone beyond that of the rink to be able to explain the music’s influence outside of it. Here in Part One, the focus will be New York’s original disco and boogie powered style skate explosion and a brief introduction to the birth of the hip-hop groove, as well as Chicago’s reworkings of James Brown and the fever-pitched footwork that developed alongside of it.

This article was published in Electronic Beats’ winter 2014/2015 print edition.

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