At one point while I stood on the sidelines, a thin man with a roller skating ability best described as below competent became dislodged from the great mass and hurled toward me. Judging by the look on his face and the speed at which his wheels rotated, the only options available in his arsenal of breaking techniques were most likely either to fall down or crash into me. He chose the latter, but fortunately we were both able to extend our arms and somehow embrace each other with minimal impact, probably looking like a couple of eager yet awkward freshman engaged in their first high school slow dance. We exchanged an understanding nod before he disappeared back into the carousel of skaters.
Someone who’s quite familiar with the highs and lows of NYC roller skating culture is the 80-year-old founder of Crazy Legs, Lezly Ziering. If anyone knew why the local roller rinks have evaporated recently, I figured it would be him.
Ziering claims he was five years old when he put on his first pair of skates, which had metal wheels and were only meant for the sidewalk (it was the 1930s). He says he skated at the Empire when he was 12, and was the first person through the door on opening night at the Roxy. “I just got there early,” he explained. Ziering, who’s known to have a penchant for purple, has spent many, many years teaching dance and skating and dance skating. He’s worked alongside both Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood, and choreographed Broadway shows such as Starlight Express and the adaptation of Xanadu. In 1995, he founded the Central Park Dance Skater’s Association, whose members can still be found — weather permitting — on a stretch of pavement they like to call Skaters Road, though the name you’d find on an official map is Dead Road.
“I don’t want to use that corny old line, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on, but it is,” Ziering once told Gothamist about his devotion to skating. “It’s a very heady experience. It’s that feeling of freedom.”
On the night I visited his club, Ziering was dressed in all purple. Hat, sweater, socks, shoes, jacket, iPhone case — all purple. He entered the gym with the aid of a walker, because about a year ago he had a “very, very bad accident” while training a group of roller derby girls. One of them was skating backward without looking behind her, and smashed into Ziering, knocking him over and breaking his femur. Throughout the years, he has sustained many injuries, including two knee replacements, a hip replacement, several broken ribs, and more, but at 80 years old, this might be one of his last.
“I am very bad at falling down,” Ziering confessed to New York Press back in 2009. “I am the worst! They call me the bionic man now.”
Soon after I finally got a chance to speak to Ziering one-on-one about the current state of roller skating in New York — he’s very popular with the Crazy Legs crowd! — I asked him to offer a reason for its decline. Did the pastime simply fall out of fashion? Did the rise of Rollerblades and X Games kill it? Something else? All of the above? What’s the answer?
“Finances,” said Ziering. “
When you rent a place, you rent it by the square foot. You can’t fill it with enough skaters to meet that by-square-foot price, unless the place is packed every night. If you open a disco, that’s another story ’cause you can get 2000 people in a good-sized one. If you pack them in — and I mean pack them in — you can get maybe 500 people in a roller disco.”
It should be noted (and might be obvious) that New York City isn’t the only place where roller rinks are disappearing. According to a New York Times article from 2011, “Roller Skating Association International, a trade organization for rink owners and operators, reports that 1,200 to 1,500 rinks remain in the United States and Canada — about two-thirds of the total when disco was king.”
To find out more, I called Roller Skating Association International and spoke with the organization’s executive director, Jim McMahon. Basically, he agreed with Ziering: the culprit was money.
“If you’re going to build a 40,000-square-foot building in New York, I just would hate to guess what your real estate taxes would be,” McMahon told me. “We have rinks on the outskirts of Chicago that are paying $80,000 a year.”
But! Despite all this bleakness, Ziering still has hope. While the loss of rinks may have partially led to a decline in roller skaters, a revival of skaters could perhaps lead to a resurgence of rinks.
“Roller skating has cycles,” he explained. “Cycles of huge popularity and then decline, and then huge popularity again then decline. It’s like a roller coaster.”
It’s true. Just think of the popular Gotham Girls Roller Derby; the 2005 film Roll Bounce, featuring Bow Wow and Nick Cannon; and Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut, Whip It. None of these things add up to the palpable roller skating clout of the late ’70s, of course, but they’re definitely not nothing.
Indeed, according to an episode of WNYC’s Soundcheck about this very subject, roller skates were invented in the mid-1700s, roller rinks first appeared in the late 1800s, and at the turn of the 20th century “rolling skating rinks were in the same state that they are right now.” As Canadian scholar Romy Poletti mentioned on the show, when 1950s-era rock ‘n’ roll first emerged it was a huge problem for rinks because suddenly roller skating became “too conformist for the baby boomers, so they let those spaces go completely to waste.” When the steady rhythms of disco eventually arrived, lacing up your skates became cool again. Very cool.
Back at the Crazy Legs Skate Club, the smell of body odor grew to a noticeable level around 11:00. Nearly every forehead in the great mass showed signs of perspiration, while strategically placed fans did their best to keep the room cool. Younger people were still arriving and inquiring about skate rentals. Older people were getting close to each other as the DJ transitioned to slow-tempo R&B. A man fell down on his arm so hard that someone else called 911. When the two paramedics arrived, they were confused: “They called us to a roller rink, and we said, ‘What roller rink?'”
Ziering believes that if an investor gave him a heap of money and one last chance, he could get New York City roller skating again.
“If you do it right, it’ll take off,” he said. “If I could take my ideas for roller skating and bring them to a nice big place, the place would be packed. We’d get back all the skaters who used to skate at the Empire, all the skaters who used to skate at the Roxy, all the skaters who used to skate at the Skate Key. They’d all go. I’ve heard it from them.”
As for now, however, all that’s available is the Crazy Legs Skate Club in a gym rented out by the Salvation Army. And it’ll do.
All photos by Aaron Colussi.