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Rooted in Motown, Detroit style skating rolls on into the next generation

Skaters doing "the Hatch" at Detroit's Northland Roller Rink in for the second annual Skate Jam Night.
Zairé Talon Daniels
Skaters doing "the Hatch" at Detroit's Northland Roller Rink in for the second annual Skate Jam Night.

Angie McClendon has been roller skating since she was 5 years old. Now 61, she's a veteran of the Detroit skating community. McClendon is a Detroit style skater – every move is rhythmic, following and matching a beat. "Everything is in sync because it's from the Motown era," McClendon explains.

Motown's music legacy is well known — think: Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and The Temptations — but not everyone is aware of the lasting impact it had on roller skating.

Take, for example, "the Hatch": Three to four skaters hold hands and turn their bodies right to left as they're skating. "Three becomes one," McClendon says. "It's important that we in sync together. If I don't hold your hand, how we gon' keep up with each other?"

Here's what it looks like:

Toe stops — round rubber balls attached to the bottom of the skates – make it possible for skaters to move their bodies while staying in one place. And that "allows you to put it on a stage," says Tasha Klusmann, the historian behind theNational African American Roller Skating archive.

"With Motown, they were learning to smile and how to carry an audience, and how to present themselves," says Klusmann. "They were already thinking about stage and performing because that was very much in the air. Roller skating was just another vehicle to do it."

The style's tempo and polish made it stand out from skating styles from other cities.

"In Detroit, it wasn't just the tempo," said Klusmann. "It was the polish. Very versatile style. Very showy."

And that's largely because of Motown.

Building a resilient roller community

From the 1910s to the 1970s, during the Great Migration, many Black families fled the South seeking safer, better lives. The auto industry in Detroit was a major draw. "Ford represented an opportunity to work and make money — and with that, the opportunity to buy houses and cars, and own businesses," Klusmann says.

The segregation in the city forged a tight-knit community, where Black-owned businesses supported one another. "That uniqueness, not only did it give fruit to Detroit style skating, but things like Motown and that work ethic that came out of the factory — it's all part of that culture and that community," Klusmann explains.

It's a community and culture that lives on at theRollerCade rink in southwest Detroit. Founders Johnnie Mae Folks and Leroy Folks migrated to Detroit from Alabama. They fell in love with roller skating after several summer trips to Idlewild, Mich., says their grandson, Kyle Black.

Back in Detroit, "there was only one skating rink in the neighborhood and they only allowed Black people one day out of the week," says Black. "And they wanted to skate more frequently."

That motivated his grandparents to open a space for their children and community to roller skate in. So they established RollerCade in 1955, and passed it down to their sons, who then passed it down to Black. "I would say RollerCade represents perseverance and the will to be of service to people," Black says.

Skaters at Northland Roller Rink in Detroit.
/ Zairé Talon Daniels
Zairé Talon Daniels
Skaters at Northland Roller Rink in Detroit.

A new generation of Detroit style skaters

Nearly 70 years later, the original rink is still standing – along with an additional location in downtown Detroit. "During the pandemic, roller skating was one of the few outlets that people had that was safe which led to an immediate spike in skate sales ... and participation," Black says.

Skyrocketing sales led to aworldwide shortage of skates in 2020 and 2021. Nolan Edwards, founder of the Detroit-based skating company and collectiveMotown Roller Club, says this resurgence is thanks to social media. Videos on Motown Roller Club's TikTok typically attracted 50 to 60 likes every month – and then increased to thousands. "During the COVID time frame, one of our videos got about a half a million views on it ... " says Edwards. "Thanks to the Internet, [people] just fell in love with roller skating and it just absolutely blew up."

Edwards started posting instructional skate videos on social media. He's also been able to establish partnerships and work with local non-profits. The club now hosts weekly skate classes and sessions across multiple rinks in Detroit. These classes allow a younger generation of skaters – some new to Detroit style and its history – to join in the fun.

Elijah Smith, 19, has been skating for just a few years. In 2022, he started his ownskate page on Instagram. He loves that he can contribute to Detroit style. These are decades-old moves, Smith says, but over time, "people were able to mix it up ... add little twists to it." And now Smith, and other skaters in this new generation, are helping evolve the tradition.

Detroit style is "not a set thing that you have to do every time," Smith says. "When you comin' out on the floor, it's just always something brand new, every single time."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Naina Rao