Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Soul Roll: Detroit’s Black Roller Skate Culture Glides On

by Sherri Kolade
photo: Sherri Kolade

He can still hear it.

The growing thunder-like sounds of the hundreds of roller skates rhythmically gliding over the smooth floors of his home roller rink. The people wearing those roller skates move like silk on wheels over the dance floor with as much Detroit flair and style that, well, never goes out of style in the city.

Those sounds are like nothing else to River Rouge resident Anthony Miles.

“I started skating at 14 years old,” Miles said during an interview with The Michigan Chronicle. “I started getting tips from a cousin who helped me out and I took over from there. … My favorite [memories from skating were] the contests they had during the ‘70s and ‘80s…it took me years later to win a contest.”

Miles, who is in his 50s, has been roller skating for the past 35 years and can practically skate in his sleep. Miles, an old-school vibe skater, hasn’t missed a week at his home rink, RollerCade Detroit 2130 Schaefer Hwy, in the past three decades until COVID-19 hit.

The family rink opened in 1955 after his grandmother got the idea to start her own roller rink when her children were restricted to attending a skating rink during certain times in River Rouge during the 1950s because of the color of their skin.

Miles glided on the rink on April 5 and showed Detroit-style skating techniques on the same rink he met his wife decades earlier.

Miles’ cousin, Kyle Black, was also there at the rink, which he’s owned since 2012.

Black, 29, talked inside his office/DJ booth. It was decorated with colorful roller-skating parts, well-worn pictures with old-school signage adding to the vibe and the steady hum of the pop machine going in the background. That’s before the booming music begins and sets the mood for skating.

Black said that his grandmother’s skating rink is the oldest and only Black-owned skating rink in the city. She had to covertly open it back in the day with the help of her husband and a white business associate.

“It still blows my mind,” he said. “Days I’m in awe — is this a dream? Am I really living this life? I can’t fathom that I’m even really here in this position because of what my grandmother did … it is still almost shocking to me.”

His grandmother, Johnnie Mae Folks, had four children during the ‘50s and her husband wanted to retire from Ford Motor Company before they opened the rink.

“They had about $15,000 saved in the ‘50s — a lot of money — and she was able to acquire a loan,” he said. “By 1955 they had this entire building built.”

Black, who recalls skating before he knew how to walk, said that the Detroit skate culture is like a “whole underground world.”

“Detroit has a very rich skating history, [which] as far as I know, goes back to ‘50s, ‘60s,” he said, adding that it had become more popular in ‘70s and ‘80s and is “really starting to build back up.”

Black said that the skating culture has grown over the past six years and is still growing. He also said that people were tired of doing the same old activities and wanted to switch things up. Also, now with COVID-19, people are picking up activities that they might have not thought about before, like roller skating.

“We’ve been rolling ever since and never missed a day since COVID,” he said, adding that he was closed most of last year and his online store, www.rollercadedetroit.com, pulled in “some good numbers.” They’ve had to reduce capacity at the roller rink but they still sell out weekly.

Black said that with spring here and things opening back up, people are passionate about skating indoors and outdoors — and he’s all for it.

“Skating is like life — therapeutic,” he said. “Nothing matters but the music and the wheels. It’s energetic.”

Black added that skating is a full-body workout with lots of benefits. People don’t even know they are working out when they are gliding with R&B, rap, new and old school music and more playing in the background.

Black also made clear that the best Detroit skate move of all time is a style that is a Detroit classic “a move you have to know” if you are roller skating in the city.

The move is complex to the untrained eye and involves pivoting, a back kick, eagle spread and more.

His cousin Miles, who said he thinks about falling last not first, did the move effortlessly.

Black said that skating is all about having confidence and getting up and falling and getting back up again.

“You fall, get up, that’s the lesson,” he said plainly. “Don’t quit. What do you gain?”

Westside resident Edward Reese is an instructor and member of Motown Roller Club LLC. The club does not have a roller rink but they host events, along with marketing and promotional events for the rinks in the Detroit and metro Detroit area.

The club recently started lessons with Reese on Wednesdays and Sundays at the Skatin Station 2 in Canton. They primarily post their lessons and events at www.facebook.com/motownrollerclub.

Reese said that the skating culture is “really starting to flourish.”

“It’s going from one era to the next era, which is creating a melting pot full of skaters,” Reese said, noting that 10 to15 years ago it was just one culture, just one way of skating. “I’m in the process of trying to bring back the old-school vibe with new style skaters.”

Reese, 45, said that he started skating in the late ‘90s when he was 23.

“When I started skating it was mainly like we skated to a lot of ‘70s, ‘80s music — a lot of old school solid gold music, and our Detroit style is so structured — only one way to do it. And once you go outside that realm it is considered not right.”

Reese said that he is in the process of bringing the new generation of skaters “back on track” to learn the fundamentals of proper skating while letting them do what they want.

His students are primarily Black women, which he called a “good thing.”

Reese added that he’s glad to be at the forefront of the Black skating culture in the city and a part of its resurgence.

“The camaraderie, the friendships you gain, stuff like that — the whole vibe of it is a different world than what people know of,” Reese said.