How adult nights at Detroit’s roller rinks are keeping black skating culture alive 

Skaters at a recent adult night at Royal Skate Land. - FRANCHESCA LAMARRE
  • Franchesca Lamarre
  • Skaters at a recent adult night at Royal Skate Land.

On weeknights (read: work nights) when it would be hard to fill just about any other venue, roller skating rinks in metro Detroit are full of people. Skaters stroll in with backpacks, rolling bags, extra pairs of socks, sweat rags, loose quarters, and even headphones to enjoy adult night — the one night typically reserved for the 18-, 21-, or 25-and-up crowd that every serious skating rink honors. It's where the advanced skaters go to add some more seasoning to their Detroit style.

Detroit-style skating is characterized by its smooth rolling motion that is heavily influenced by the Motown sound that was gaining traction around the same time that skating became a popular pastime. According to skaters who have been on the scene for decades, Detroit skaters don't ever really stop rolling and if they do, they use the rubber toe stops on their skates, another signature marker of a Detroit skater. The basic move that every Detroit skater has to learn, whether solo or in groups, is the half-turn, which involves turning a smooth 180 degrees for a few beats then turning back in place to continue on the original skating path.

"I consider Detroit to be one of the best because we're actually in motion, doing all of this stuff as if we're standing in place," says Quentin Wright, a 41-year-old skater who has been skating since he was 3 years old and regularly attends adult night. "I don't want anybody going and saying 'this is Detroit style' and they're doing it wrong. No, you do it right or don't do it at all."

What was once labeled "soul night" in the 1970s, a coded term that permitted black skaters to integrate predominantly white rinks, has evolved into "adult night" — the last remnants of a time when the skating rink was an integral component of black social life. Roller rinks that reserve this time for a specific demographic of skaters not only offer a simple act of recreation, but also an opportunity to keep the tradition alive.

"The story of it all here in Detroit is very beautiful because the way we skate is handed down from generation to generation," adds Wright.

Today, Wright enters adult nights all around the city with an elongated leather bag that holds each of his skates in a separate pouch, but he used to trek up and down Woodward in the winter with a shovel on his shoulder in an attempt to make enough money to go skating that night by shoveling snow. From age 10 to 21, Wright performed on Soul on Wheels, a choreographed skating show that aired at 6 p.m. on WGPR-TV. Soul on Wheels skaters made appearances at local church and school events and performed at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. The showrunner, RJ Watkins, also produced The New Dance Show that came on right after Soul on Wheels at 6:30 p.m. Wright earned a performance role in both shows and credits this early kinship as the start of a lifelong affinity for skating and dancing.

The biennial Soul Skate at Detroit’s Northland Roller Rink, the “Big House” of Detroit skating. - JOSHUA WOODS FOR CARHARTT WIP
  • Joshua Woods for Carhartt WIP
  • The biennial Soul Skate at Detroit’s Northland Roller Rink, the “Big House” of Detroit skating.

Within minutes of arriving at the skating rink and lacing up, Wright can be seen focusing on his solo practice, skating in stride with a partner, or holding down the center in a trio where each person steps in unison, weaving the kind of pattern that links one person to the next — and fortifies friendships all throughout the skating community.

Each roller rink in Detroit is its own universe. Royal Skateland. Northland Roller Rink. Skate World of Troy. RollerCade. Rolladium Family Fun Center. The Great Skate. Detroit Roller Wheels. Skatin Station. Bonaventure Skating Station. But if you go from rink to rink, you begin to notice a handful of familiar faces and moves. The skaters all seem to know each other, and all have a similar mission of wanting to represent Detroit-style skating in an authentic and truthful way for newbies and legends alike.

There's this woman who starts the night with a simple ponytail and lifts it into a high bun after hours of doing artistic and freestyle skating moves — graceful turns and symmetrical bends with the opposite arm and a leg outstretched. Her name is Josephine Covington and she's a 38-year-old registered nurse with four children and a husband. She is wearing glittering eye shadow, shimmery lip gloss, and sparkly nail tips when she comes to Skateland's adult night on a recent Sunday. Her first job was working the snack bar at Detroit Roller Wheels, where she spent a lot of her free time since she says home was not the best place to be. She's always been into skating, and as a young girl she wanted to transition to ice skating, but didn't have the money for the skates, the practice, or the coach. Plus, she didn't think she'd fit the poised, privileged archetype of the ice skating industry. Covington laughs as she recounts paying for children's skate at Detroit Roller Wheels with 200 pennies for weeks before the owner just started letting her in for free, and prides herself in always managing to make it to the rink.

"Here, people are willing to teach you just because you asked them and they'll be happy to because they love it as well," she says. "We just represent our style and then for the people that would like to learn, we just give them pointers, we show them our style, and I would like to think of it as us trying to keep it alive."

One of those revered teachers is 71-year-old Judy Spradley, a small but serious skater who calls skating her blessing and credits both her health and successfully retiring from her career as the only black woman in a predominantly white department at Ford to skating regularly. She frequents many adult nights around the city, but grew up on the east side of Detroit, so Royal Skateland is her home rink. For Spradley, skating is an escape from reality and a return to a loving community that she helped build.

"This is a place where you relieve stress," she says. "What I really like is feeling the music as I'm skating. When I'm skating I feel like I'm free as a bird. Skating, in my day, was all about being in your zone, having your fun and not interfering with nobody else."

Every rink has its legends, and at Northland, there's William Williams, a lanky 61-year-old wearing a red-and-black Adidas tracksuit that makes him look as young as he did when he first started skating at 16. While other attendees put quarters in a random locker of their choosing to secure their things, Williams gets his own assigned locker with event flyers, pictures, and stickers pasted on the inside. He met his wife, Kimberly, at the roller rink, and the couple hosts a sold-out anniversary party the Saturday after Labor Day every year; now, they're entering their 10th year of marriage and will host their ninth party. He is nicknamed "The Skate Ambassador" and has a Facebook page called Detroit Skate Family Information that keeps the local skating community up to date on skating events and organizes skating trips. When he's not on the floor, you can find him seated in front of his locker, acknowledging everyone who passes by.

"Before we leave, everybody gonna get a hug, a handshake, a kiss on the cheek, and when new people come we want them to feel included," says Williams.

FRANCHESCA LAMARRE
  • Franchesca Lamarre

Williams' friend, a roller skating aficionado nicknamed Rockin Richard Houston, has recently published a book that he has been working on for seven years, called The Motown Sound on Wheels. The book makes a link between Detroit-style skating and Berry Gordy's Motown musicians by profiling about 50 of his skating peers. Houston is a decorated skater with a Lifetime Achievement trophy, a Godfather trophy, and a Gong Show trophy that he won on a skating competition that aired in the '70s on NBC's syndicated variety show called The Gong Show, hosted by Chuck Barris. Houston is proud to be the only skater in the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, so he gets paid every time his skating is broadcast. (He'll be hosting a book signing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 20.)

"The skating bug is really starting to take shape and grow even more, and a lot of other cities are trying to take credit for where it started," Houston says. "It's an art to skating and it's not a lot of us left."

Houston isn't the only black skating enthusiast who has taken on the task of archiving roller skating and its integral role in the black community. On Monday, Feb. 18, HBO premiered the documentary United Skates, executive-produced by John Legend and directed and produced by filmmakers Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler. The doc follows dedicated skaters in Chicago, Los Angeles, and North Carolina as local skating rinks face the threat of closures in response to an effort to rezone these spaces for other kinds of commercial use. The personal stories shared in the documentary echo the sentiment of many members of the Detroit skating community: Skating is an intergenerational family affair that has unified the black community over time — yet remained relatively unknown in mainstream culture.

Detroit's local skating community hasn't faced major skating rink closures in recent years, but it has lost some. Places like Fairview Gardens and The Safari come up when longtime skaters reminisce about the roller rinks that are no longer in operation. One of the most notable shutdowns was Arcadia Ballroom, also known as The Arc, a roller rink that doubled as a music venue and featured big band acts and housed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, but was demolished in 1972. But while Detroit hasn't lost any roller rinks in recent years, it has lost a few of these specialized adult nights; Northland recently removed a Gospel skate and a Monday night adult skate session from their schedule.

"When I'm skating I feel like I'm free as a bird." - JOSHUA WOODS FOR CARHARTT WIP
  • Joshua Woods for Carhartt WIP
  • "When I'm skating I feel like I'm free as a bird."

Nevertheless, Northland Roller Rink is the pinnacle of Detroit-style skating not only because of its size (it's Detroit's largest) but also because it hosts Soul Skate, a biennial skating extravaganza that takes place during Memorial Day weekend, coinciding with the annual Movement electronic music festival. The event is hosted by the legendary house producer and DJ Moodymann and welcomes skaters from all over the world, and has featured special guests like Kem and Ronald Isley in recent years. In fact, Soul Skate premiered United Skates in Detroit last May to an audience of international, regional, and local skaters and skating teams.

"It's the big house," says 26-year-old Jalen Davis, who has returned to Northland after picking up his teenage hobby of skating again. "If you want to get some soul, this is the place to be."

Only two of metro Detroit's skating rinks are black-owned and -operated (Rollercade and The Great Skate), but there is something noticeably, beautifully black about every adult night. All across metro Detroit, the interiorities of blackness that aren't usually visually on display in public play out in real time in front of you.

Bodies hold memories, and skaters who make their body do the same magic every week commit those moves to memory. The lessons learned stay with you even after you've left the rink. Remember to hold your head up high and straight. Don't look at the ground. Be an anchor for your partners when they want to try a bold move — keeping your feet on the ground will help them soar. Young ones learn to move with the old. Make way for the loners who want to stay on their own path. Hold the hands of those who you're not used to holding outside of the rink. We have to get better at honoring the feel of one another. Skating is a lesson in artfulness and athleticism, trust and touch, intimacy and independence, and resilience and respect.

Putting on skates is a surrender to the environment and those around you. Your natural-born feet are no longer touching the ground, a set of four wheels fastened in their place. All of this makes the skating rink a safe, black space in a city and in a world where more and more of these cultural landmarks are disappearing.

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

© 2019 Detroit Metro Times - Contact Us

Website powered by Foundation