LAUREL, Md. — “Now bend your right knee a little,” says Phyllis Leins into the microphone.
The 75-year-old instructor, who began teaching roller skating when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States, speaks carefully and clearly from a perch on an elevated booth in the middle of the Laurel Roller Skating Center.
It’s another Saturday morning, when beginners wobble on rented four-wheel, or “quad,” skates across maple floors at each of the area’s 11 indoor skating rinks. In slow motion, students try to execute Mrs. Leins’ commands and remain upright at the same time on a surface as smooth as an Easter egg, glossed and fast as a bowling alley center lane.
“No, your other right knee,” she says in a gently humorous jibe at shaky skaters who seem not to know where their right knees are.
The scattered chorus line offers a cautious knee-dip. There are 25 females ranging in age from kindergarteners to gray-haired grandmothers, and five males — two little guys, who seem to have no fear, and three precariously balanced fathers.
“That’s right,” she says, “now bend your left knee a little and you’ll glide off to the right.”
Long before in-line skates and skateboards, there were nearly 3,000 rinks like Laurel’s skating center in communities of all sizes across the country, according to figures from the Roller Skating Association International (RSAI) in Indianapolis.
Whether as showy centerpieces of popular culture, like the old-fashioned nightclubs and movie theaters of the Roaring ‘20s through the World War II era, or just unadorned rinks in quiet towns, they were places where boys met girls, and parents knew their children would be safe in a wholesome athletic environment.
Roller skating flourished until about 1959, when it began a slow decline, says the RSAI. Today, there are only about 1,000 rinks nationally, and females 7 years of age and older represent 64.7 percent of all their customers, according to the skating association.
For many thousands of Washington-area skaters, the gentle pastime still is about high-top laced boots, as in a lithograph from the Gay ‘90s, and the quiet hum of rolling over hardwood indoors, with music and the opportunity to dance or frolic with children — as well as the quiet reassurance of close-at-hand restrooms, a comfort not available to the outdoor skater.
Too, for the ambitious souls willing to practice under the eye of a tutor, Washington is a perfect place for learning the warm-weather alternative art of spins, spirals and twirls famously popularized on ice in recent years by the Michelle Kwans and Tara Lipinksis of the Winter Olympics.
“A lot has changed about [roller] skating,” says Marjorie Bargmann, a former champion skater, tutor and, today, manager of the Laurel rink. “But it’s still good exercise and just fun, and with a little practice you can learn how to do it all.”
“What I like,” she says, “is the effortless ‘flying’ around the rink with the wind in your hair, and this wonderful feeling of being free.”