Every Night Is Eighties Night at South Florida Skating Rinks
Miguel Carver looks devilishly happy as he rounds a corner of the roller rink. Bent slightly forward, lost in his own world, he skates close to the inside of the oval. The DJ spins a freestyle classic from 1988 — Stevie B's "Spring Love." It's one of Miguel's favorite songs. He shakes his tush to the synthesized beat.
At the next corner, the 51-year-old turns to skate backward. His shoulder-length brown hair, short on top and long in the back, flaps in the air. His black jeans, black T-shirt, and black country-western belt signal hell on wheels. Miguel likes to drop into rolling splits as he approaches skaters who might, for a second, think he's about to take them down.
But "Spring Love" is a romantic song. So Miguel channels his inner Don Juan. He rests his tongue between his lips in anticipation. It's time for his signature lambada-on-skates move, which consists of one hand fist-pumping the air, the other flat against his stomach, and hips wriggling in front of an imaginary dance partner.
Miguel, a receiving manager at a Home Depot, is one of the loyal skaters who frequent "Flashback Thursdays" at Galaxy Skateway in Davie. Adults here like the freestyle songs popular in South Florida during the Eighties — the skaters' glory days. The area was home to about a dozen rinks filled with skaters every day of the week; I know because I used to be one of them. Only a handful of rinks remain. Likewise, only a fraction of the folks who rolled in this uniquely South Florida fashion, to tunes recorded here, still hit the rinks.
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Galaxy appears suspended in time. Three large disco balls whirl above the maple skating floor. A flashing light show incorporates every color of the rainbow. The rink walls are covered in black carpet with bold geometric shapes — hot pink triangles, lime green squares — that glow under black lights.
There's a faint musty smell, like gym shoes after P.E., which mixes with the aroma of piping-hot pizza. A sticker machine waits to swallow quarters; slide in the coins, and a sparkly animal-shaped surprise pops out. It still costs 50 cents to rent a locker. Arcade games such as Donkey Kong, Street Fighter II, and Mortal Kombat look like they haven't seen action in years.
All of this nostalgia occasionally attracts novice skaters in costume. Tonight they're college students too young to have experienced firsthand the styles they're mocking. Girls sporting crimped sideways ponytails and boys wearing short athletic shorts congregate at the rental counter. One girl is a dead ringer for Madonna in the singer's 1984 Like a Virgin video. "It's Eighties night," a guy in a blond mullet wig tells me.
A few Galaxy regulars are psyched to see fresh faces. A true skater, they say, relishes navigating a packed floor. Others cast sideways glances at the college kids, who baby-step on brown suede rental skates with four orange wheels. A serious skater would never be caught in rental skates.
Miguel, who began skating when he was 16 years old and met his now ex-wife at Galaxy, opts to sit out the rest of the session. He plops down at a royal blue laminate snack table across from Matt Claus, a 31-year-old speed skater who has torn it up at this rink since he was little. Piercings dot Matt's face, and his dark, shiny hair is long enough to be pulled into a ponytail. He rolls his pale blue eyes at the college interlopers. "It's always Eighties night when they're here."
Matt says he got kicked out of several high schools for making mischief. Apparently his mischievous streak is still strong. "All right," he announces. "I'm gonna go back out and see how many people I can run over. I've already taken out, like, 20 of them."
Miguel is puzzled as to why people would want to skate in costume. He guesses the young man dressed in the burgundy pantsuit is going for the gay cowboy look. And maybe, he ventures, those guys wearing fluorescent yellow construction vests as shirts are merely showing off their biceps.
But what about the business-up-front/party-in-the-back wigs? It was a popular Eighties hairstyle, I respond. He mentions hair bands such as Queensrÿche and Cinderella and coos, "God, I love that music!"
Miguel's hair used to flow down his back, all the way to his waist. But about seven years ago, he asked a barber to chop his hair like Billy Ray Cyrus circa 1992: short on top and superlong in back. But Miguel fell asleep in the barber's chair, and when he awoke, his locks reached only his shoulders. "I wanted to cry," he remembers.
Miguel's hair has been shoulder-length ever since. "I like it feathered on the top and long in the back. They call it a mullet," he says.
Miguel has to accompany his mother on an errand the following morning, so he ducks out early. As he exits Galaxy, 15 people begin to shuffle-skate. This involves a group of skaters performing synchronized movements: a slight bounce down the stretch of the rink; the right leg crossing over the left to navigate the corners. The aim is to achieve the same harmony as a swarm of bees.
Jeff Allen is at the front of the shuffling pack. The line snakes past a cluster of bystanders, and the 43-year-old spots a familiar face. He shouts, "C'mon, old man!" The white-haired skater dutifully rushes to catch up with the group.
They're bouncing to "Jealous Fellas," a 1987 Miami bass track by Dimples Tee. Scott Shea, a 44-year-old cashier at Publix, assesses the formation from the sidelines: "He has five, six guys behind him," Scott says of Jeff, with competitiveness in his voice. "Years ago, my record was 12." Scott has been skating for 30 years. "I've been doing it so many years," he explains, "that I'm popular. Like, that girl just said, 'Hi Scott.'"
Scott enjoys a good shuffle, though tonight he's concentrating on the ladies. He used to have a female skating partner who would shuffle behind him. And he had another one before her. He would have liked to have made one of them his girlfriend. Maybe there's another skating partner out there waiting to be found, I suggest, pointing to a good-looking gal. "That girl is married," he says. "But there are, like, four guys that she flirts with here. She leaves her husband at home."
It's not easy to find a mate on wheels. The DJs no longer announce couples skate. Worse, there are fewer skaters and rinks from which to choose. Only three rinks in the region still feature adult nights. Indeed, the places themselves are an endangered species. Nationwide, there are less than 2,000 rinks, half as many as in the early Eighties, estimates John Purcell, executive director of the trade group Roller Skating Association International. Some rinks couldn't afford the legal liability, and others sold out during the real estate boom.
Scott takes to the floor, his legs pushing gently off the wood, arms folded across his chest. His movements are slow and meandering, almost melancholy, as his shaved head disappears down the rink.
The crowd thins. I'm rolling along, spacing out, when Jeff asks me to confirm the rumor that I'm there to "write a report." Indeed. And the whole class will get to read it.
Jeff describes himself as a diehard skater. "You could cut my legs off and I'd probably still skate." As proof, he lifts one of his pant legs to reveal a knee bandage. He fell six weeks earlier, got water on the knee, and kept on skating.
He shrugs when I ask why he's the alpha male during the shuffle skate. "I've always been the leader," he says. Jeff flips his long legs around to skate backward so he can face me. "If you're tall and you can cut a good path through the crowd, people will follow you," he says.
"This is like driving a car; you have to keep an eye out for potential accidents. You have to know when a novice skater might fall in front of you and cause a pile-up."
Forty-year-old Joey Parilla says shuffling isn't what it once was. He used to skate nearly every day of the week and even had a shuffling group with his older brother and cousins. They'd climb into a van and drive out to different rinks for variety. "It used to look so in uniform — it was four of us out there. It was so fluid. Oh, it was beautiful. I'm not being conceited, but everyone would stop and watch. Then we'd do a pike in the air. Ah, it was beautiful."
Joey has the muscular build of a gymnast, which makes it easier for me to visualize him and three other guys simultaneously leaping into midair leg splits, or pikes. Such performances grabbed the attention of the ladies, and the ire of their boyfriends, Joey says. But over the past 20 years, little by little, Joey's crew dropped out. Only Joey kept visiting the rinks. Eventually he met, and then married, a manager at Galaxy.
"It was the early Nineties, and I didn't want to go out on the dating scene — the whole buying drinks and that spiel — so I met her here."
Joey and his wife are separated. She no longer works at Galaxy. So he's there solo, wishing he could persuade his brother to skate again.
Anyone can learn how to shuffle, Joey says. Dancing in the center of the rink is where all the creativity lies. He steps into the oval, next to the guys break dancing on wheels. He flashes a self-conscious, deep-dimpled smile. He leans his weight on one heal, then the other, and then both. He hops into the air. Joey can tap-dance Sammy Davis Jr.-style on skates. Next he launches into a series of Saturday Night Fever-esque half-splits.
The sounds of Egyptian Lover's 1984 song "Egypt Egypt" fill the building. It's a shufflers' favorite. Exhausted, Joey exits the rink, taking care to avoid a collision with the skaters who weave in unison like schools of fish.
"Yes, this is the old Hot Wheels," Mario Alvarez acknowledges with a tired nod that shows he has answered that question a thousand times.
Super Wheels was known as Hot Wheels until 2000, and Mario has been the manager for the past five years. Before that, he worked here between 1987 and 1992, doing everything from manning the concession stand to keeping speed skaters in check as a floor guard. "This place was bangin' in the late Eighties, early Nineties," he says.
Those were the days that robotic-sounding freestyle music ruled South Florida. "Everything freestyle, Miami-style, happened here," Mario says. Glossy autographed photos of all those music groups used to line a wall inside the rink, faded proof they rocked the house before crowds of 800-plus. In 1999, Hurricane Irene soaked all the musical evidence.
It was also in the early Nineties, as I entered high school, when I stopped roller skating regularly. My precious speed skates ended up in my father's storage space. I carry them into Super Wheels, and Mario suggests I stow them in the office during a tour. As I hand them over, the lady behind the counter gasps. She extends her arms gently, as if the skates were a prized family heirloom. "Wow," she says breathlessly, "these are two stripes, with Zinger wheels. They don't make these anymore." She's the first of four people to trace a finger of admiration along the dusty face of one of my 24-year-old Zinger wheels.
Super Wheels has the same carpet-covered bench seats, cheap snack tables, and flashing light system as other roller rinks. But it's somehow more childlike. That might be because the décor consists of primary colors. Also, games such as air hockey and Dance Dance Revolution occupy half the space.
There's a disconnect between this carnival atmosphere and the skating floor itself, which is dark and trippy under colored lights. Mario points proudly to the maple rink floor, past the wall where the cool kids sit. As Mario waxes nostalgic about the stage where freestyle singers once made young girls weep, a stream of regulars interrupts to say hello. And ask favors.
A redhead wearing a backward ball cap, a tribal tattoo on his right forearm, and spacers in his ear lobes approaches Mario with a lengthy tale about someone who's talking smack. "I've known him since we were little gits," the young man explains, "and now he tells me that he's gonna take me down in the parking lot when I leave tonight. So I'm going to go talk to him, try to sort this out. But I don't know what's going to go down."
Mario says there hasn't been a fight at the rink in years. The house rules have been drilled into the skaters' heads. The cardinal rule is that once you leave, there's no re-entry. Another clear no-no is fighting.
The young man has Mario's full attention. "I just want you to know," the redhead continues, "that my intention is to talk, not to throw down, because I don't want to do anything to jeopardize my ability to come back." Mario nods a silent approval.
The two young men are former rink rats, all grown up. Rink rats typically start skating young and then maybe graduate to a part-time rink job in their teens. "I can honestly say," Mario says after the redhead walks away, "that half my regulars here were rink rats when this was Hot Wheels."
There were so many rink rats in the late Eighties, Mario recalls, that South Florida roller rinks such as Super Wheels could open every afternoon and usher in a crowd. These days, children's birthday parties and school vacations pay the bills.
Mario and I walk past the two feuding young men, who appear to be hashing things out peaceably, and settle near the arcade games. As we talk, a skater I had met at Galaxy hovers nearby. "Get your wheels on," Jeff Allen instructs.
I glide toward the skating surface in boots that used to feel like an extension of my feet. Jeff is at the front of a shuffle line, as usual, bouncing and singing along to MC Shy-D's 1987 track "Shake It." My right skate is wobbling something awful, so I stop to check it. Scott Shea rolls up to keep me company. Then the music slows. It's a Stevie B ballad, "Because I Love You." Apparently, Super Wheels still values the couples skate. At the very least, the sappy love songs force the aging speed skaters to take a break.
Jeff approaches again. "Is she harassing you?" he asks Scott.
"She can harass me all she wants," Scott responds.
Jeff lectures me about the perils of being all work and no play. He asks to "interview" me and then skates off, signaling that the conversation will be held on the floor. The front wheels on my right skate are now pulling wildly in different directions. My body tingles from the vibration as I try to stay vertical. The lack of control is completely unnerving.
Jeff and I make it around the oval only once before I forfeit. We discover that a bushing on one of my trucks has disappeared, probably the victim of dry rot. Without that plastic cushion, there's nothing to reduce the friction between my front wheels and the boot. We drift toward the rental counter to see if they have a spare part for my beleaguered skate. There, at the opposite end of the building, the music is practically inaudible. But Jeff hears the DJ announce a "guys' shuffle." He rushes back to the floor.
He returns a few minutes later with a children's-size soft drink in hand. He mentions he met his now ex-wife at a roller rink in 1992 and how he has actually met a lot of girlfriends skating. The rink is like a built-in social network.
"I see people that were here 15 years ago. I think that's what appeals to us — it's like a time capsule. You can go away for 10 years and come back, and everything is the same. Even if the people are different, the atmosphere is the same. Nothing has changed. It's comfortable. When you go to a new school or start a new job, you feel antsy, but here you feel right at home.
"You get to feel like a kid again. Then you get to know people, and you look forward to seeing your friends. It's like when you were in high school and you wake up excited to go to school and hang out with your friends by the lockers."
It's as if the bell just rang, because this adult session is over. Patrons gather around the lockers inside Super Wheels to replace their skates with street shoes.
Jack Hernandez glides alone on the wood floor on a recent Sunday at Gold Coast Roller Rink in Fort Lauderdale. His skating style is smooth and rhythmic, with a slight bounce. The 44-year-old firefighter is the product of an African-American mother and Chino-Cuban father. His caramel-colored biceps bulge under a T-shirt, and his tight curls are pulled into a short ponytail.
Patrons here are predominantly African-American. A lot of them groove backward, by themselves, but occasionally small cliques skate in unison. When that happens, the routines are reminiscent of the silky choreography of the Temptations. The fashion statements, meanwhile, seem to draw inspiration from MC Hammer's old dance troupe: Salt-n-Pepa hairstyles, shirts with airbrushed designs.
Gold Coast was established in 1947, making it the oldest surviving skating rink in South Florida. Some warped sections of the wood floor feel as if they might be original. The rink is dimly lit with tiny yellow and red lights that look like flying saucers in the dead of night.
Jack begins to chat me up after I point out we have matching skates. He has been a regular at Gold Coast for 10 years, but he's been skating three times longer than that. I'm one of only two white people here, but as we roll along, the DJ issues this welcome statement: "Black, white, we don't care. As long as you got skates on your feet."
Several skaters I spoke with at Galaxy and Super Wheels bluntly said they won't go to Gold Coast because, with the exception of the Tuesday-night gay party, the crowd is "too black."
"Unfortunately, a lot of people look at the crowd and go, Agh!" says Miles Miron, a manager at Gold Coast who has been with the rink for 19 years. "Let's face it — if you were the only white person in a rink full of black people, you might feel a little out of place. On the other hand, how do you think a black person feels in a roomful of white people?"
On many nights at Gold Coast, Miles is the token white guy. He's fine with that.
Not all rink managers are that open-minded. "Sometimes the mentality is: I don't want to deal with a rink full of 200 to 300 African-American adults," says Saletta Coleman, sales and marketing manager for United Skates of America, which operates 17 rinks around the nation.
Speaking by phone from the rink she runs in Chicago, Saletta recalls the cool reception she and other African-American adult skaters received at a rink in northern California three years ago. They noticed the DJ would suddenly switch from slow R&B jams to country-western music — and the whole floor would stop. "When you go from hearing Michael Jackson to Hank Williams, it's jarring." The skaters agreed to boycott the rink.
Jack says he had a country-music moment six years ago at Galaxy in Davie. "A lot of the black people here at Gold Coast started going to Galaxy. And at first, the management was probably like, this is cool. Then they looked around. Sometimes black folk can be rambunctious. I myself am multiracial. But sometimes you get people together and they don't know how to act. The rink found a way to thin the crowd: by playing country-western music. We got the message."
Galaxy's owner, Joyce Ritter, acknowledges the rink uses country-western music as a tool to get rowdy clientele to settle down. However, she emphasizes that her rink targets rule-breakers, not skaters of any particular race. "All Americans and foreigners alike are welcome," she wrote in an e-mail to New Times.
Jack is thinking about giving Galaxy another chance. After all, it's close to his home in Miramar. But he isn't crazy about all of that fast music they play. The mellow and melodic tunes at Gold Coast set a slower pace. On "Jam Skate" night, which features new and old tunes for an all-ages crowd, we hear New Edition's "Cool It Now" and Sheila E.'s "The Glamorous Life," both of which scaled the pop charts in 1984.
Jack loves Eighties music. It reminds him of those lighthearted days when he was a teenager, practically living at Tropical North Roller Rink in Hialeah. "I had blue vinyl skates with yellow stripes. They were like the Kmart special. For somebody with crappy skates, I did pretty good. I used to skate so hard — no water breaks! — I'd cramp up and practically have to crawl off the floor. The weekend would come, and I'd be there the whole time."
After high school, Jack became a professional jai alai player. His only night off from the game was Sunday, when none of the local roller rinks had adult sessions he liked. So he'd drive to a rink in Tampa. "People would think I was nuts. 'You're going where? To do what?' But if you have something that, for you, is a passion, it's worth it. Some people would go to clubs; I'd go skate. The way some people express themselves dancing, I express myself through skating."
Life sometimes interferes with skating. Jack says he's struggling to get his "legs back" after a recent absence. If he can hit the rink at least once a week, though, he thinks he can sustain the groove.
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