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Detroit's integral role in roller skating culture

The past, present and (hopefully) rockin’ future of Detroit’s skate scene

As a boy growing up in Black Bottom during the early ’60s, Richard Houston enjoyed Saturday matinees at the Arcadia Ballroom on Woodward – but it was roller skating that kept him out of trouble. He laced up his skates and found an entirely new world to explore – and has never looked back.

Now, at the age of 66, Houston, known as Rockin’ Richard Houston, is a world-renowned skater. The retired postman and Air Force vet has been called “The Godfather of Skating.”

Houston is part of a collective in Detroit devoted to what is called The National Skate Scene, which has people from around the world meeting up to skate after hours, usually between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. These adult skate parties serve as a haven for lovers of roller skating. Not only that, but it’s a time when the “skate family” gets together for a reunion of sorts. These parties have included vendors, entertainment, dance events and other activities – happening here both here and, on a much larger scale, in cities like Atlanta and Chicago.

Roller skating in Detroit has remained a vibrant touchstone, particularly among the black community, and the city’s contribution to this movement on skates is what Houston hopes to highlight in his memoir, The Motown Sound on Wheels, set to release later this year. He wrote it not only as a historical document and point of reflection but as a love letter to the skating world that has been his passion.

“Skating is my world,” Houston says. “I feel like I’m not even at my prime yet.”

He approaches skating like an art form and has developed a seamlessness to his performance. That’s not to say that he is perfect – he has fallen, but you wouldn’t know it.

“When it comes to my roller skating, I have this technique when I can do something before I hit the floor that makes it look like it’s a move,” Houston says. “Something happens where I get it together before I hit the floor. To me, I’ve got all the time in the world before I hit the floor – I can’t explain it, I can only do it.”

Such mastery can be attributed to the many hours he’s spent on the floor skating with a wide range of personalities. That experience includes celebrity names such as sports legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Bernie Casey – and even Motown royalty Stevie Wonder. Houston recalls the Arcadia days when he skated with Wonder.

“He loved to roller skate, but we would have to hold his hand and take him around,” Houston says. “The amazing part about Stevie Wonder … once he lost his sight, other abilities just keyed in. He goes by feeling. You can squeeze his hand and that’s telling him it’s time to cross that right leg over and turn.”

The Godmother

If Houston is Detroit’s skating godfather, Cynthia Travis is the godmother. Travis has been at it for over 50 years, and you could trace the popularity of Detroiters presenting their distinctive brand nationally to Travis’ skating group back in the ’90s (Skaters On The Move, Skaters On The Go and The Detroit Rhythmic Rollers). She and her friends put together trips to Chicago and California. A national skating spark was already lit, and the flame spread naturally from the local scene to a bigger movement.

“In time, other cities started getting in on this,” Travis says. “But we were just trying to change the monotony of just going around in our own circles. So we had our own circuit in Michigan in the ’70s and’ 80s, but in the ’90s we started traveling around the country.”

Travis retired from work in 2009 but still relishes getting on the floor and skating. When describing our city’s roller style, she observes that Detroit generally takes the parameter “all the way around.” She explains: “The distinction is we use all of the floor – a lot of (skaters from other states) use the middle of the floor. Skating is cyclical. It’s one of the cheapest forms of entertainment you can find. There’s more to it than going around in that circle.”

The Ambassador

Joi Lofton, another Detroiter, found her love of skating 40 years ago, and she has never stopped. After graduating from cosmetology school in 1986, she had an opportunity to move to Atlanta and open a hair salon in 1988. While this was the driving force that prompted her to relocate, her move would prove influential to national skate scene.

New Yorker John Perkins, an associate, decided to take Lofton’s connection to the skate world and rink owners to another level and came up with Sk8-A-Thon, an event that invited skaters from around the world in 1996. Although Lofton and Perkins went their separate ways, Lofton decided to rebrand the event, calling it Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon.

“It’s definitely international,” she says. “We have skaters here from Canada, London, Holland, Germany, Japan – those are the five countries I know of. It’s been the largest skating event in the country. The skating goes to 5 or 6 in the morning.”

Held Labor Day weekend, Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon is a passion project for its organizer. Yet, after 22 years, planning the event hasn’t gotten easier. It takes eight months to iron out the details each year.

“I came to the realization that I have to plan it every year as if it’s the first year, because there’s new people coming every year,” Lofton says, “and I can’t expect them to know about Sk8-A-Thon outside of what they’ve seen or heard.”

Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon keeps Lofton busy, but she still takes time out to skate because it is an integral part of her life. “Skating to me has been – and is – exercise, it’s another activity that’s so much fun, but you don’t have to have a partner. I can go roller skating by myself and just have a wonderful time,” she says. “You don’t think of anything but roller skating when you’re out there. Any fears or concerns you have, you have a peace that’s indescribable. It’s a wonderful feeling – the laughter, the joy, the happiness.”

Detroit’s Soul Skate

Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon might be the largest skating party on the national scene, but Detroit’s own Soul Skate runs a close second. Similarly, people travel from all over the world to celebrate roller skating in an afterhours adult setting. Soul Skate, a bi-annual event (the next one takes place in 2018 during Memorial Day weekend) draws thousands to Detroit.

“Smooth” Ralph Bryant, who started skating in Detroit at age 7, is one of the event’s co-organizers. Soul Skate is also the name of his group/organization, whose purpose is to promote roller skating in metro Detroit and beyond. A self-professed “IT man” by day, Bryant lets loose in the company of his fellow skating enthusiasts. As far as he’s concerned, he’s surrounded by family.

“The music, the environment – it’s a family-fostered environment,” Bryant says. “They’re similar to a family reunion. I don’t necessarily go to the gym, so I get on out there, work up a sweat and exercise. I would say to people (that) getting involved in the skating world is one of the best things you can do in this life. People don’t know about it.”

Expanding the community

How do thousands of skaters from around the world – including Detroit – find out about adult skate parties such as Joi’s Sk8-A-Thon, Soul Skate and others?

When skaters want to know where the national parties are, they congregate on social media. But one website serves as the main informational source: skategroove.com. Before this go-to site, there was rollerskate.net – co-developed by avid skater Kevin Williams. Williams, another native Detroiter, has been involved in the skating scene since its inception. He moved to Los Angeles for a time and eventually hosted some roller skating parties in Southern California.

“We developed a website and we advertised this party and connected with roller skaters from all over the world,” Williams says. “About 2,000 people came – they came from Sweden, Switzerland, Mexico, Canada, Japan and all over the United States. It was an awesome roller skating party. It was absolutely amazing. From that, the party kept building, Joi’s kept building.”

Once he retired, Williams stopped hosting roller skating parties. But he’s kept up with skating – especially Detroit events and roller skating history. Whether that’s following the talented skaters or remembering Detroit-centric roller skating TV shows such as Roller Funk or Soul on Wheels, Detroit has always been an innovator, Williams says.

Soul Skate, he adds, is often unpredictable. “The entertainment is unbelievable. Last year, they had El DeBarge.” Previous years have included Kem and Whodini. “I’m just a person who goes. You are not told in advance who any of the entertainment is – they show up and perform.”

And, as they do, the roller skaters keep skating to the live music.

“Roller skating here is unique,” Williams says. “The only roller skater who ever won The Gong Show was from Detroit. You say Cynthia from Detroit, everyone knows (who you’re talking about). Rockin’ Richard is known nationally. Detroiters are the ones who give roller skating performances anywhere we go. Detroit skaters are entertainers on wheels.”

CORNELIUS FORTUNE IS A DETROIT-AREA FREELANCE WRITER AND BLAC DETROIT CONTRIBUTOR

 

Skating’s Health Benefits

  • Burns up to 600 calories in one hour of activity
  • Works glutes, quads, abs, calves and arms
  • Causes 50 percent less stress to joints than running
  • Less injury than football, basketball and biking

Source: Roller Skating Association International

Skating History Tidbits

  • Roller skating was embraced in the post-Civil War era by the upper class, who wore tuxedos and evening gowns while skating.
  • It gained popularity in the early 20th century after labor laws allowed people more free time.
  • The Great Depression took a toll on skating, since limited resources made it difficult to maintain large rinks.
  • The disco era was its heyday: The songs of that time were perfect for bouncing and rolling to the beat.
  • Economic downturn in the ’80s hit the recreation again.
  • Its popularity has been lifted in recent years thanks to inline skating and the resurgence of roller derby leagues.

Source: National Museum of Roller Skating (Lincoln, Nebraska)

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