Inside the New York Roller Skating Extravaganza
For some people, a roller rink is just a place to go around a circle, not even very fast, without going anywhere. But to his devotees and to the creators of the DiscOasisa new skate experience in Central Park, it’s transformational, spiritual – time travel on four wheels.
On Saturday night, more than a thousand skaters packed the Wollman Rink, strapped on their quads and launched into sparkling nostalgia. Floodlights shone on the surrounding trees, as a concert-level light show bathed the space in cyan, fuschia and gold. “Good Times,” that 1970s party staple, blared from DJ Funkmaster Flex’s booth as the crowd – some wavering, some more expert – parted for the pros: a roller-dancer in flared jeans fell in half, while another tipped its wheels, rolling into a handstand. For 10 minutes, it was all hot pants and stunts, and then the regular New Yorkers — many with not far off style — returned.
Hovering over that opening night like a glittery demigod was Nile Rodgers, the chic guitarist, funk-disco eminence and lifelong skateboarder. He arranged the music for the DiscOasis and, with voice-over introductions, provides his cultural line from 1970s and 80s New York, when he frequented the city’s now-closed ice rinks, once legendary with Diana Ross and Expensive. Kevin Bacon and Robert Downey Jr too. (The ’80s were crazy.) With some skill on the wheels, “You feel like you have special human powers,” Rodgers said in a recent video interview. “You feel you can fly.”
Roller skating is enjoying a new surge in popularity, but the DiscOasis stands out from the crowd other ice rinks and pop-up events (Rockefeller Center is temporarily accommodate riders too) by its production value, its theatricality and its pedigree. There are thriving disco balls up to eight feet in diameter and a tiered stage, created by Tony Award-nominated set designer David Korins, who has done “Hamilton” and shows for Lady Gaga. The cast of 13 includes New York roller disco legends, like the long-limbed skater known as Cotto, a staple of the city parks for more than four decadeswhose signature leg twists and pivots have influenced dozens of skaters.
“We call it jam skating,” he said. DiscOasis brought him out of retirement – he had both hips replaced – for choreographed shows, five nights a week.
The energy is ecstatic and contagious. “Being on wheels is heaven for me,” said Robin Mayers Anselm, 59, who grew up going to Empire Skate, Brooklyn’s famed emporium. “I feel more connected to myself and my spirit when I skate.”
That’s true even for first-timers, like Robin L. Dimension, an actress wearing an ornate jumpsuit and chunky “Queen” necklace with her psychedelic-patterned skates. “I have a really nice outfit,” she said, “so I look good coming down.”
Billed as “an immersive musical and theatrical experience,” the DiscOasis debuted outside Los Angeles last year, the pandemic brainchild of an events company run by a CAA agent. But its original home has always been New York, and it will be open daily through October.
“For us, DiscOasis is a movement, it’s a vibe – we want as many people as possible to experience it,” said Thao Nguyen, its executive producer and general manager of Constellation Immersive, its parent company, which has partnered with Live Nation. and Los Angeles Media Fund to stage the series.
For the New York skate community, it’s first and foremost good ground. “You know, we’re not impressed with the illusion props,” said Tone Rapp Fleming, a New York native and skater for 50 years, who came in for a preview Thursday. It’s mainly because die-hard skaters like him and his friend Lynná Davis, vice-president of the Central Park Dance Skaters Association, would skate on the lid of a trash can, as she said. But they praised the rink’s new slippery surface, painted in primary shades of blue, yellow and red.
The creators of DiscOasis knew that if they won the old school skate team, the world would follow; Davis, a timeless wonder with rainbow-speckled braids and custom, fringed wheels, helped with the casting. “Have your own way, children! she cheered on the young dancers, as they wheeled through their routine, to a soundtrack that shifted from Queen to “Rapper’s Delight”.
Rodgers created the playlists for the performances, which run throughout the night, interspersed with live DJs (daytime is for more relaxed skating). A lifelong New Yorker, Rodgers invented his skateboarding style at the age of 12 or 13 during a brief stay in Los Angeles, when he tore through the city with other kids, performing little routines . “I had this way of skating with wonky legs,” he said. He still does, “even though I’m going to be 70. And that sounds cool.”
His team was already standing out back then: “We used to skate to jazz,” he said, recalling their grooves on guitarist Wes Montgomery’s 1965 classic. “Bumping into the sunset.
Fast forward 30 years, and Rodgers had largely hung up his skates. But he was so energized by his association with the DiscOasis, who approached him for the Los Angeles event, that he rekindled his devotion. Now touring Europe, he’s creating mini-bars everywhere he goes, one hotel ballroom at a time.
“They lift the rugs for me and create a big dance floor,” he said. “I can skate in a small square. There’s nobody in there, because I’m skating at such weird times — 4 or 5 in the morning. (He doesn’t sleep much. As befits a disco-era fashion legend, he also has custom skates – orange, green, iridescent – that stuck in customs en route to Europe. Her favorites are a classic pair of black Riedells.)
Even for someone familiar with skate culture, the Los Angeles version of the DiscOasis offered some lessons. Most skaters only stay on the rink for about 45 minutes, Rodgers said. The space around Wollman has a non-skate dance floor and a few Instagram-ready installations inspired by his music. The giant half-disco ball filled with oversized wedding bouquets, pearls and crooked mannequin legs, for example, is meant to symbolize Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which he produced.
For production designer Korins, the space is a throwback to Studio 54, but fresher. “We’re leaning into this idea of an oasis — if you’re thinking mirror balls and foliage coming together to have a child, that’s what we’re doing,” he said. (Think palm trees and scruffy cacti.) And the Central Park location, with the Manhattan skyline soaring above, brings its own magic. “It takes all the best in roller skating and disco and it literally tears the roof off,” he said.
Like other skateboarding regulars, Korins has a theory on why it’s still addictive. “It’s really hard to find a kinetic yet dynamic life experience,” he said. You can adjust your solo style and also get the fellowship of an “organism that moves together”.
Shernita Anderson, the choreographer, has seen this in action. For the solos, the cast was on their own. “We were like, ‘Go ahead, live your best life!'” she said. “And that’s what they did.”
Pirouetting and kicking through the act was Keegan James Robataille, 20, a musical theater-trained dancer who only started skating two years ago as a pandemic outlet. A swing in the company, it is his first professional concert under contract. He grew up near an ice rink in Amsterdam, NY “I remember going there all through college and being like, ‘Wow, I wish I could skate backwards and do this cool stuff,'” he said. “And here I am performing in New York, doing what I would have dreamed of doing.”
A closing number — set to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” naturally — came and he flew off for his cue. It had the skaters in capes dotted with LEDs, like luminescent butterflies.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in New York,” said 24-year-old native Samantha O’Grady. The rinks she started learning about closed “when I was a preteen,” she said, but the retro vibe of the DiscOasis gave her a shimmer of how the scene looked before her time. “I sent a photo to my mother; she was so jealous.
New visitors were already planning to become regulars, like Robbin Ziering, whose marriage was on wheels. “We love to work, we love to dance, we love music – but we live to skate,” she said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Kalia Richardson contributed reporting.