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.”
It’s not free, though, at the area’s sprinkling of indoor roller rinks (none of them in the District), where today hundreds daily pay $4 to $8 for a two- to four-hour roll over the hardwood. Renting skates can cost $1 to $2 per session. Children and adults can take lessons for beginners ($20 a month, typically) or, if they wish, can get private tutoring by the hour to learn the more ambitious spins of Miss Lipinski or dance with a partner like a latter-day rolling Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.
Each rink looks surprisingly the same, at about 20,000 square feet, the size of a small grocery store, and all have snack areas, restrooms, lockers and shaggy-covered seating for shoe changing. Each organizes themed hours for families, teens and young adults, along with sessions tied to gospel and Christian music hours, dancing to old-time organ music, as well as to — yes, indeed — rap and rock ‘n’ roll.
Numerous promotional hours pack the calendar. One favorite is “lights-out night,” in which skaters get free glow sticks and create swirling constellations of light and motion in the dimmed, 100-by-85-foot rink ovals. Many summer specials — “off season” for indoor skating — entice church groups, day and adult care centers, summer camps and other assemblies onto the wood rinks.
“I remember Riverside rink,” Miss Bargmann says after taking a break from helping beginners on the Laurel practice floor. Riverside Stadium was a roller palace at 23rd and E streets NW, where Kennedy Center stands today. The indoor 30,000-square-foot wooden showcase with a 200-foot-wide circle had two practice areas at either end. There was a snack bar and a westward view of the Potomac River up to the Port of Georgetown.
“My father, Lou, and mother, Betty, taught there for years,” she says, recalling parents who were the Illinois pairs champions when they moved to Washington in 1939. After Riverside was torn down in 1956 (on land later groomed for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971), Miss Bargmann says, her parents opened Congressional Skating Center in Rockville in an old airplane hangar at the little airport there.
She and her brothers, George and Lou, and sister Betty grew up at that rink, which was demolished in 1985 to make way for a parking lot near a Metro stop. The Bargmann children learned how to skate early, and grew up working the concession stands and rental desks when not in school, she says.
They still talk about the times Amy Carter skated there during the presidency of her father, Jimmy Carter. The space was then secluded and safe, and likely was selected by the Secret Service for those reasons, the Bargmanns speculate. .
“What I loved as a kid was being there with my parents,” Miss Bargmann recalls. “They were so extraordinarily giving of themselves, so warm as teachers and wonderful to be with. It seems whenever I meet someone new today, it’s just amazing how many times they’ll tell stories about themselves or their parents who studied roller skating with my parents.”
“That’s probably why I’m still here, still skating and teaching,” she says. “Now I see children of the children I once taught coming in to learn.”
In the small world of skating, in fact, such connections seem to count. Mrs. Leins was hired by the Bargmanns at Riverside, as was the owner of the Laurel rink, Jack Becker. After teaching at Riverside, Mr. Becker worked in the 1950s and ‘60s coaching and teaching at the Bladensburg skating rink, then at the Bargmanns’ Congressional Rink in Rockville, then at the National Rink at 16th and Kalorama streets NW in the District, and at the Alexandria Arena..
All these but the National Rink have been lost to the wrecker’s ball — and the National was refitted as a warehouse with office and retail space.
“I remember the first time I went skating,” says Mr. Becker, 70, who today owns eight area rinks. “It was 1942, the war was going on, and I took the bus and then streetcar to Riverside with some friends of mine.”
“I wanted to see what it was like,” says the McKinley High School grad who grew up on 22nd and Perry streets NE in the District.
“What it was like: Well, there were young guys like me and pretty girls, and so it was much fun to skate and jump and twirl. I stayed there till they kicked me out. What I remember of that day is that when I took the shoes off to go home, it felt like I was still skating.
“And the Bargmanns were such fun to work with,” he says. “They taught skating, and helped us kids form clubs and competitions, and, really, friendships that have lasted all our lives.
“That’s what I look for in people like Marjorie and Phyllis,” says Mr. Becker. “Friendly people who have a passion for skating and teaching.”
Families today are looking for the same qualities in one another and on the rink floor, he says, “only with different music — and maybe family life is a little more complicated.”
As for retiring and leaving the business to his two grandchildren, he says he wants to skate as long as possible.
“Besides,” he says with a laugh, “old skaters don’t die, they just roll away.”
Links to rinks in D.C. area
Looking for links to rinks? Hours of operation, prices and serv- ices vary among the 11 metro- politan-area indoor roller skating rinks, all locally owned by longtime skating enthusiasts. Up-to-date information on the Internet is available only for the Skate-N-Fun Zone rink in Manassas.
Phoning rinks directly can be frustrating, as voice messages are sometimes long and poorly recorded monologues offer conflicting or incomplete information. A visit to inspect the facility and pick up its monthly calendar likely will be more satisfying for someone beginning to skate.
All rinks rent equipment and have snack bars. Some sell skating gear, including skates, socks, laces and other paraphernalia. All give lessons to beginners for a fee, and welcome families, as well as provide (for a small fee) space for birthday parties, while welcoming school and church groups throughout the year.
With few exceptions, rinks impose order on the skating floor for both safety and appropriateness for families with children. Some allow in-line skating, while many do not.
Try these area rinks:
7878 Sudley Road, Manassas. 703/361-7465 or www.skatenfunzone.com
In-line alternative to skating
While indoor roller skaters may have music and skates designed for the elegance of ice figure skating, in-line skating is “something else,” says Daniel Donoghue, president of the Washington Area Roadskaters, or WAR.
The 10-year-old club is one of several organizations for fans of in-line skates, which are basically hi-tech ski boots fitted with four or more tough-as-nails wheels in a line, like a bicycle. They are very fast and practically indestructible, but offer none of the agility of four-wheeler “quads,” which align like the wheels of an automobile, two in front, two in the rear.
“In-line is really for outdoors, and is a great aerobic exercise,” says Mr. Donoghue, who delights in taking in-line group tours through Washington’s historic areas by night.
“We’ll skate for two to three hours past all the monuments, or by the river, and end up at the Foggy Bottom Pub afterwards,” Mr. Donoghue says, referring to the burger-and-pizza place at 2142 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, near George Washington University. “It’s a skater-friendly place; they let us wear our skates and stuff indoors there, and we can hang out and have a beer and just relax after a long run.”
New in-line boots start at about $150, compared to prices as low as $39 for quad skates, but there are few rental facilities for beginners to “test” their interest in the sport, he says. Still, people “fall in love with in-line” once they try it, perhaps by borrowing a friend’s boots, he says.
WAR offers a busy schedule of organized events throughout the year, including free teaching clinics Saturdays in Rock Creek Park; Wednesday and Friday night “tours” through the city, usually ending at a pub; and two Sunday rides beginning outside the White House, one for intermediate, the other for advanced skaters, Mr. Donoghue says.
Typically, a WAR rider shows up with helmet; knee, elbow and wrist guards; flashers and headlamps strobing on his helmet; water bottle and gear slung on his belt; and a fanny pack or backpack. The look is not unlike an “imperial storm trooper from one of the ‘Star Wars’ movies,” Mr. Donoghue says with a laugh.
For more information, see www.skatedc.org.
Book recalls the golden age
Lou Brooks, a California graphic de- signer whose logo for the game of Monopoly is recognized globally, cel- ebrates the graphic arts of roller skating’s heyday (from 1920-1959) in a new book called “Skate Crazy: Amazing Graphics From the Golden Age of Roller Skating.”
It covers a time when every rink in the nation had a logo and dancing and racing clubs worked up their own artwork to express their love of skating. Mr. Brooks offers commentary and reproductions of the stickers and patches that skaters at Riverside Stadium and other area rinks would affix to their clothing, skates or carrying cases.
Included are brief histories of the skating eras and some of the personalities who dominated the sport. Souvenir tickets, postcards, matchbooks, advertisements and photographs round out the visual history.
For an Internet viewing of the $16.95, 142-page paperback book from Running Press, see www.loubrooks.com. For those with sound capacity, Mr. Brooks’ site also plays historic recordings of organ music and other tunes played at roller rinks.
Holland gave skating its start
In Holland in the early 1700s, an unknown Dutchman decided to go “ice-skating” in summer, nailing wooden spools to strips of wood and attaching them to his shoes, according to about.com’s guide to inventors. “Skeelers” was the name given to the new dry-land skates. The name is used in the Netherlands even today to describe a five-wheel inline speed skate.
It wasn’t until English inventor Joseph Merlin in 1760 that metal wheels were fitted to boots. Dazzling a London dinner party by rolling in while playing the violin, Merlin crashed into a wall-length mirror, though both he and his roller skates survived to prosper in society.
The modern skate was born in 1863, when American inventor James Plimpton combined two parallel sets of wheels under the ball and heel of the foot. By 1902, the first public skating rink in America opened at the Chicago Coliseum. By 1908, Madison Square Garden in New York became a skating rink.
For more, see https://inventors.about.com.