wax Poetics
Cher and roller-disco guru Bill Butler at Casablanca Records party. Photo by Robin Platzer/Time & Lile Pictures/Getty Images

Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll

While Chicago deserves its props as the birthplace of skating for Black America, it was in New York where it transcended its role as a pastime to become a cultural force. However, the skate scene’s interaction with dance culture and its inspiration to the disco underground during the roller-disco boom of the 1970s has been largely unrecognized, except by those who floated across the hallowed wooden floors. 

published online
Originally published in Issue 52
By Andy Thomas

    New York’s skate story really begins in the 1940s when brothers Henry and Hector Abrami took on the Empire Rollerdrome, east of Bedford Avenue in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Nestled between a row of gas stations and storefront churches, the Empire was originally frequented by the Eastern Europeans who were predominant in the area at the time. The demographics of Brooklyn changed rapidly in the following decades with areas like Crown Heights becoming home to a large Black community.

    As skate legend Bill Butler recalls, “When I arrived at the Empire in 1957, just about all the skaters were Black.” Raised in Detroit, Butler was introduced to the Empire as a young serviceman newly stationed in Brooklyn. “When I got there, it was all organ music, nothing related to Black people and how we danced. So I brought my own music with me and asked Mr. [Henry] Abrami if he would play a number I had, ‘Night Train.'” The owner obliged and the Empire was to change forever as organ music was replaced by jazz and R&B. The skaters responded to the new musical direction, and Butler was at the forefront of this new age for skating. “They say I changed it, because I introduced a different type of skating,” he states. “I had been working on what I called the jammin’ technique when I was stationed in Alaska and brought it to the Empire.” 

    By the 1970s, New York’s downturn saw areas like Crown Heights become seriously blighted. With its brightly colored murals and neon palm trees, the Empire provided both a sanctuary and an escape from the realities on the streets. “The Empire had its roots in the projects, so it played out a different role than the Manhattan skate clubs would,” explains skate DJ Julio Estien, another pivotal figure in New York’s skate history. “It was a big part of a lot of people’s lives from those poor communities, and it became a real family thing.” The community ethic was epitomized by the skate club 8 Ball and the Blue Guerrillas. Established in 1971 by Brooklyn skate elder Tom Neverson, this cross-generational collective was set up to empower inner-city youth. It did so throughout the 1970s by offering hope and direction to what became some of Empire’s best skaters. Card-carrying members included the first spinners of the golden age such as DJ Chuck and DJ Horace, as well as future skating legends like Pat the Cat. 

    While nothing should take away from the various DJs who spun at the Empire throughout the early ’70s, it was the arrival of a spinner known as Big Bob (born Robert Clayton) who would take the rink to the next level during the roller-disco era. “He was the type of DJ who had a knack to harness the skaters,” says Bill Butler. “That is the kind of DJ you need to have for skating.” 

    Not only was Big Bob an intuitive DJ at one with his crowd, he was also a skater who was keenly aware of its importance both for the soul of the community and the self-belief of the individual. “Skating is a spiritual expression of who you are,” he explained in an interview on WNYC radio. 

    Through the ’70s, the Empire was a platform for the city’s best skaters, responding to Bob’s bass-heavy sound with ever more acrobatic and flamboyant moves. Earning the title “The Godfather of Roller Disco,” Bill Butler became a teacher to the next generation of skaters as new faces started to appear wanting a taste of the in-vogue scene. “They called me and wanted me to be Cher’s date for the evening,” he recalls. “That was the beginning of the tables being turned as we saw the Empire becoming more integrated.” 

    Although the Empire deserves its place in New York skating folklore, for Julio Estien the roller-disco boom owes just as great a debt to a small Greenwich Village rink called Village Skating. It was here that the man known ever since as DJ Julio held court from 1976. “I think we were the first place to really connect with what was happening in the clubs,” he suggests. Marion Green, who had been a longtime skater at the Empire, saw the scene take off as it crossed over to Manhattan. “The timing and location of Village Skating could not have been better,” he recalled on DJ Julio’s website. It was a scene built on the ethics of family and a celebration of diversity, fulfilling the dream of the founder Richard “Dick” Clammer. “You had all types of people at the Village,” states Julio. “It had everyone. Old, young, gay, straight, Black, and white.” The DJ recalls the soundtrack to the early days of skating in Manhattan. “I’d play Donna Summer’s ‘MacArthur Park,’ [Meco’s] ‘The Star Wars Theme,’ ‘I’m a Man’ by Macho, and of course ‘Disco Circus’ by Martin Circus—that was a huge tune at the time.” “Disco Circus” was one of the many tunes that crossed over to the clubs at places like Xenon where Julio would go regularly to hear DJ Tony Smith. “I was heavily influenced by him and also the flamboyance of Studio 54.” 

    Like all great skate DJs, Julio was a skater himself and a founding member of one of New York’s best-known skate groups. “I was one of the original members of the Village Wizards,” he says. “To be a skater, you have to have a certain rhythm, a certain beat, and as a DJ, you have to recognize that. And that was what myself, Big Bob, and Danny [Krivit] had and why we connected so well with the skaters. It was all on a certain beat, and we knew which tunes had it and which didn’t.” Talking on WNYC, Big Bob concurred with the importance of these disciplines: “With skating, you got to learn how to really mix…because that’s what they skate to—that beat.”

    Members of the Village Wizards included Michael Bellgrave and Marion Green, who would become the manager of Village Skating. They were soon joined by one of the city’s finest skaters, Khalil Kain, who began at Village Skating when he was just fourteen. As Marion Green recalled, “In six months, he was better than anyone on the floor. He was strong, smooth, and relaxed. Everything was there for a purpose.” Other troupes followed in the Wizards’ wake, including Khalil Kain’s own Stylist skating group, Dwight Toppin’s the Striders, and Fred Tantao’s Scramblin’ Feet. But perhaps the most important skate troupe of the late ’70s, and certainly the one with the biggest legacy, was the Good Skates. 

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    The Good Skates grew from an idea of founder Judy Lynn; as one of their press releases from 1979 explained: “Judy envisioned a new world of feet on wheels—people transporting themselves daily and dancing nightly in roller ballrooms, spinning and gliding to jazz, blues, and disco music. Healthier, happier people—even breathing cleaner air.” It was in Central Park where the vision became a reality as the Good Skates began one of the longest-running skate sessions, thanks today to the Central Park Dance Skaters Association (CPDSA).

    DJ Danny Krivit recalls his first exposure to this legendary skate group: “I was skating a lot, and I was actually quite good but more like a hockey skater. Around ’78, I did a block party with a friend for these roller skaters, and it was a new experience for me. They had the Good Skates, and I really enjoyed playing for the skaters. It was a little different than I had experienced before.”

    The skate styles that developed during this time were a big influence to the dancing in the clubs, in particular the fluid style of dancing that developed around clubs like the Loft. “I think the swirling and jumping has definitely crossed over from the skate rinks to the clubs; and that’s because pretty much everyone I knew that skated also went to the underground clubs as well,” explains Brooklyn DJ Donna Edwards. With its newly installed Richard Long sound system bringing even more dynamics to the floor, the Empire became a breeding ground for future DJs like Edwards. “My brother and I would often go to Empire Skating Rink to hear both Big Bob and Tee Scott spin,” she recalls. “They used to wear me out. I loved that someone could make music continuously flow without interruption. At that instance, I decided I wanted to learn how to spin. I would go in the booth and talk with them and watch what they were doing.”

    While Big Bob has earned his crown as the top DJ at the Empire, Tee Scott’s time there was also important. Donna Edwards, who was a big follower of Scott, equates his time at Empire with his legendary tenure at Better Days. “His playing had the crowd stompin’ the floor out,” she recalls. “I used to pray that old floor hold up under the madness. Hearing him in the Rink was mind-blowing, because the system was awesome; you could hear it blocks away. I’d rather go roller-skating and listen to Tee instead of going to the [Paradise] Garage or other events that were happening at the time.”

    With the Empire and Village Skating competing as the premier skate spots, DJ Julio moved to another Manhattan rink in the summer of 1978. Metropolis was just one of many rinks at the peak of roller disco, like High Rollers on Fifty-Seventh Street, Coco’s in Greenwich Village, and Busbies on Fourteenth Street. But there was one venue that came to epitomize the zenith of the Manhattan skate scene. 

    Located in Chelsea, the Roxy was founded by Steve Bauman, Richard Newhouse, and Steve Greenberg in 1979. While the venue would become known as the meeting place for uptown b-boys and the downtown art scene, the Tenth Avenue club had actually been designed as a skate rink. Danny Krivit recalls how he began his tenure there: “My personal taste in music at that time just happened to be kind of like what happened to be the top skating tunes. It was a very specific sound; you know, things like ‘Just a Touch of Love’ by Slave, Prince’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover,’ Shalamar’s ‘Right in the Socket,’ and a lot of other records on the Solar label.” While the crossover from the underground dance clubs to the mainstream charts has been well documented, the influence of the skate scene on the charts is less well known. “If a record was a success at the skate [rinks], it sold,” confirms Krivit. “So I had a lot of people from record companies that would come and pick from that scene.” Danny was soon joined by DJ Julio (and female DJ Elise Sokol) as the Roxy became Manhattan’s premier rink. Because of the recent closure of rinks across the New York boroughs, it’s hard to believe how in vogue skating was at that time, but the Roxy became a regular hangout for the likes of Andy Warhol and Cher. “Compared to the Empire, the Roxy was more of a red-rope venue. So I guess you could call it the Studio 54 of the skate scene,” states Krivit.

    Although skating and disco shared many of the same classics, there were clear distinctions between DJing in the clubs and at the rinks. “The skaters influenced me extremely,” explains Krivit. “Occasionally, I would think about chord structure and all that, but I wasn’t thinking so much about the rhythms. And the skaters really made me focus more. At the skate clubs, they had a very specific idea of what perfect skating music was. It was a certain tempo and didn’t get too fast or slow…which was why [Chic’s] ‘Good Times’ was such a big song. There was this thing where it wasn’t just beat-clap kind of rhythm but an extra-pronounced beat or snare so when you were skating it propelled you and gave you an extra footing.”

    At the height of the Roxy’s popularity, DJ Julio also witnessed some interaction between skaters and the b-boys. “It was very interesting because when hip-hop came to the Roxy, there were a lot of people who were against it. Danny and I thought it was great though, and you soon had people checking each other out and copying each other’s moves, so there was definitely some crossover.” However, in the end, it was the hip-hop nights that sidelined the skating, and despite skating returning to the Roxy in later years, the skate nights lost their appeal and were dropped in the mid-’80s.

    Despite its continued popularity, the Empire certainly had its problems, as Michael Kamber recalled rather dramatically in The Village Voice: “Guns and knives were occasionally smuggled in, often taped to the thighs of girlfriends, according to security guards. Once or twice a year, [MFSB’s] ‘Love Is the Message’ or some other classic was punctuated by gunshots.” Although skating certainly faced a number of problems, by the 1990s, a new school of skaters had emerged. Combining free-form street dance (from break-dancing to house dance) and gymnastics with old-school moves, these new jam skaters move in a space somewhere between Bill Butler and legendary b-boy Crazy Legs.

    Despite its continued underground status, the New York skate scene has found itself pushed to the very edges of the city. The Roxy finally closed its doors in 2007, a year after the padlocks were put on the doors of Skate Key in the Bronx, and in what appeared to regulars as a direct attack on the community, the Empire was sold for an alleged $4.5 million in 2007 to become a storage facility. Never willing to die, however, the scene has moved out to rinks like Branch Brook Park in New Jersey and Big Bob’s new session at Hot Skates in Lynbrook, where a multigenerational family of skating diehards continue to keep the flame alight. At the same time, a weekly night called “Crazy Legs” hosted by seventy-eight-year-old skater Lezly Ziering at a wood-floored gym at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Salvation Army is a middle finger to those who have tried to kill skating in Brooklyn. And to experience a taste of old-school New York, there is no better place in Manhattan than the skate circle in Central Park, where from spring to fall, DJs like Big Bob and Danny Krivit continue to spin to the faithful.

    This article is dedicated to DJ Julio Estien, who sadly passed away shortly before we went to press.