The thrill of skate rolls on in Memphis for African-American adult skaters

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Roller skating rinks, for some in Memphis, had all but disappeared, but now many adults are lacing up again, especially in the African-American community.

The trend is back to the future — a revival of disco balls, strobe lights and the shiny hardwood floors for roller skating. Many say the thrill of the skate is back and there’s even a connection to the civil rights movement.

On any given Sunday night in Memphis, when the lights and music come on at East End Skating Center, the roller skating rink becomes more than just its own community. It’s a whole universe for skaters such as Adam Jones.

“We skate. This is our passion, our lifestyle,” Jones said. Once you come in the door and hear the music outside and you’re approaching the rink all that goes away: stress, bills.”

Welcome to “Sunday Night Live,” where the reflection of a disco ball and hardwood floors almost seem to hypnotize Jones, turning him into a skater he calls “Caveman” or “Adam West.”

Jones and 150 other adult skaters are in the rink to express their style and art, a sense of community, and family ties.

“I’m a skate baby. My mom and my dad met skating. I met the mother of my child skating,” Jones said.

Skating to R&B and hip-hop, Jessie McClain, aka “Sweet Feet,” shows off his fluid moves and athleticism, showing why he lives up to his nickname.

“It’s a mixture of pivots, spins and the transitions of different directions. That’s what I love,” McClain said.

Some skate solo, some as couples or groups. They are arm-in-arm and each person stepping in unison to a unique style of skating in Memphis called “trucking.”

“It`s a feeling. It`s a very smooth slow groove along the wall,” Jones said.

These skaters range from millennials to a more mature crowd, and you’ll even find a few people in their 70s.

“They don’t miss a beat, and it’s wonderful to see, and I tell myself, ‘That’s going to be me.’ If I live to see 100, I’ll be out here skating and with a walker, pushing it all the way around this rink,” McClain said.

Caroline Mirelli is a skating coach at East End. She first laced up her skates when she was only 9 years old. Eighty years later she’s still the “Belle of the Rink.”

“You’ll see people on one end of the floor to the other end of the floor, they’re all different cultures, nationalities, races and it’s wonderful,” Mirelli said.

There’s a deep connection between African-Americans and adult skate nights. Some say it’s rooted in America’s wrenching history of civil rights and segregation that left many turning to skating rinks for entertainment and expression.

“Yes, because when we couldn’t go anywhere, we came to the rinks. A lot of rappers and stars got their start in skating rinks,” Jones said.

But these days many skating rinks in other cities have shut down because of gentrification, as featured in the recent documentary called United Skates.

Here in Memphis, the old Crystal Palace was a once popular skating rink attracting hundreds of skaters back in the day.

It was even featured in the movie Hustle & Flow, but years later it closed after a lack of business and series a fights and shootings nearby.

“When Crystal Palace started going downhill, people didn’t know East End also had an adult night and picked up the slack. It’s not underground. it’s very much alive,” Jones said.

,It’s alive and skater Bennie Ballard loves teaching others because he says, this is a safe haven from crime and violence in Memphis.

“Our kids will skate and that’s why we keep the cycle going of teaching and loving and trying to make it safe for everybody,” Ballard said.

But on this night young adults, parents and grandparents have laced up their skates, their feet no longer touching the ground as they put one foot past the other and glide into a roller skating revival.

“I just want to share it with people and let people know it’s still here. It’s not going anywhere. Roller skating,” Jones said.

You can see many of those East End skaters perform Saturday morning, May 18 at the National Civil Rights Museum’s courtyard in downtown Memphis. Their performance is part of the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival for children from ten in the morning until three. Kids will get free books.

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