At a roller-skating rink, spinning your wheels is a good thing. Everything there is in motion: the wheels, the circling crowd, the rotating dancers (in singles and pairs). A crowded rink is a sweaty, wheeled armillary sphere.
There is freedom in those joyous orbits. History, too.
Tasha Klusmann of the National African American Roller Skating Archive is hoping people will share that history. Photographs, fliers, posters, programs, newspaper stories, banners, T-shirts — all are among the ephemera and artifacts that the archive has been collecting and placing at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
“And stories,” Klusmann said. The archive seeks oral histories from skaters themselves. Those memories often go beyond the world of the rink, illustrating the communities in which skating thrived.
“They end up telling me a lot of things about D.C. itself: the bus lines they took to go skating, what the city looked like at the time — and, honestly, what roller-skating was in their life,” she said.
Klusmann’s own story began as a girl growing up in Southeast Washington, tagging along with her junior high school-age older brother when he and his friends were dropped at a rink in Forestville, Md.
“Not that my brother wanted to be seen with me at the rink,” she said.
In time, she became a very good skater, taking lessons and perfecting complex moves with Wheels of Fortune, a performance group that rolled in the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, among other events.
It was because of Wheels of Fortune that Klusmann took her first airplane ride, to Atlanta in 1986 for Coca-Cola’s centennial celebration.
“We had a 20-minute stage show,” she said. “I really grew up skating.”
So did a lot of people. So do plenty of people still. Klusmann thinks roller-skating is America’s unsung national pastime, a sport that every few years gets a burst of media attention, even if the media spotlight equates it with ’50s carhop culture or ’70s disco balls.
What’s more interesting to Klusmann is today’s vibrant skating scene.
“In the Black community you have a pretty large 30-and-over roller-skating community,” said Klusmann, 54. “This has been going on strong since the late 1990s.”
Skating parties are held nearly every weekend around the country. The annual Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon in Atlanta attracts 3,000 skaters, some from as far away as England, Germany and Japan.
The National African American Roller Skating Archive was established in 2004 by Our Family Skate Association, a nonprofit group that encourages skating. In her role as a lifelong skater and well-traveled skating historian, Klusmann has seen how skating has developed in different cities.
“Talk to Black skaters from different parts of the country, and they will tell you what style they skate,” she said.
These homegrown skating styles are spreading because of the parties and the reach of social media.
“In D.C., we skate fast, to the outside of the rink,” Klusmann said. The music that skaters move to is slow, Quiet Storm-style R&B.
“We’re used to having big rinks,” Klusmann said, with plenty of room to move. The fashion for D.C. style is clean-cut: buttoned-up shirts in monochromatic colors, black and white skates.
New York style features skaters dressed in workout-type clothes moving to more up-tempo music. Detroit style is similar to D.C.’s, Klusmann said, but with an upright edge reminiscent of the line work of Motown singing groups. In Chicago they skate J.B. style, with funky James Brown moves.
“Some styles go very well together, some go less well together,” Klusmann said. “There’s an etiquette on the floor. If you’re going to be in a style session, you want to know what it is. I have been in a rink where it also had some folks from roller derby. That doesn’t mix.”
The District hasn’t had its own indoor rink since Kalorama closed 30 years ago. Most hardcore area skaters go to the outdoor covered rink in Anacostia or to rinks in Temple Hills, Laurel, Seabrook or Baltimore.
Klusmann said a coalition of D.C. organizations is working to convince the city that a quality indoor rink would be an important piece of infrastructure.
“It just isn't supported the way it could be. It could be so many things to so many people.”
To learn more, visit ourfamilyskateassociation.org/. And if you have something you think belongs in the archive, email email@example.com.
Mount Vernon High Class of 1972 — Sept. 9-11. For information, visit the “MVHS 1972 Alexandria Virginia” group on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wheaton High Class of 1970 — Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. For information, visit whs70.myevent.com.