Skateland on a Sunday night is all about the sounds. When you walk through the door, the speakers are blaring golden oldies, the slow jams of the past, that smooth R&B. The music is what makes everyone want to get on the floor and move. The whir of the skates on the maple skating floor, a stomp when the beat hits and the chatter of people who are excited to see one another create a party atmosphere.
The skaters on Sunday night are skilled — they move in unison but everyone has a style of their own. If you are on the outside of the circle, there's no slowing down — you have to go with the flow and the rhythm of the group. If you want to slow down or work on your footwork, you can skate into the center of the circle, maybe learn a routine. There are single skaters, couples locking arms and threesomes supporting one another on the floor, and they are all in the pocket, moving without thought, just letting their skates glide. The fluidity and freedom of their movement is infectious.
Another thing you'll notice about Skateland on Sunday night is that the crowd is almost exclusively African-American and many skaters are nearing retirement age.
The 21-and-up Oldies Night on Sundays began out of necessity. As demand has dwindled, skating rinks in Los Angeles, including the legendary Skateland in Compton, have shuttered one by one, as they have elsewhere in the country. Skateland has been a fixture since 1958 and has managed to survive what other rinks have not. A small group of adult skaters who'd been displaced as other rinks closed approached Skateland general manager Courtney Bourdas Henn and let her in on the amazing potential of a session that caters to older black skaters. Incrementally, the evening grew, despite some hiccups. Henn went through three DJs before being introduced to DJ Clyde the Glide, who finally nailed the Skateland sound.
DJ Clyde the Glide has been playing rinks since 1981. He's had nights at all of the biggest roller rinks in Los Angles and was also a radio personality. Oldies Night at Skateland became what it is because of the crowd that Clyde was able to bring with him. Skaters care about the music and the vibe; they won't just skate to anything. On a recent Sunday night, several skaters told me that they don't go to certain rinks because the music is too “young.” Clyde plays grown-folks music, which is what everyone wants to hear. He plays “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps and Vaughan Mason & Crew's “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.” The Staples Singers' “I'll Take You There” gets a particularly enthusiastic crowd reaction. He makes the session move. He plays all the hits and the crowd responds by moving with the beat, taking hold of a partner or stomping their skates.
There are adult skate scenes in black communities all over the country, but what sets L.A.'s apart is the proliferation of outrageous custom roller skates — and the skaters at Oldies Night at Skateland have the best-looking skates around. Gator-skin lace-ups, cowboy boots, Nike sneakers and Stacy Adams dress shoes have been retrofitted to become roller skates. They come in purple suede, pink patent leather and leopard-print fur. The man responsible for the creations is Rick (Sk8manrick on Instagram) at RS Custom, a second-generation skate maker who fashions built-to-order skates out of his shop in Lawndale, following in the footsteps of his father, who was in business for 35 years. When Rich steps into Skateland, he gets hugs from friends and former customers; he estimates that he personally made around 80 percent of the custom skates at Skateland on a given Sunday night. I asked him whether there are any shoes he won't make into skates, and he replied with a resounding “no.”
On the night that I visited Skateland, two people were celebrating birthdays. There was food, hugs and an overall feeling of fellowship. The skating community is dynamic, allowing older people to move with grace and speed. I spoke with two women who have been friends since 1966, when they met in high school. One of them was wearing sparkling skate covers that she made herself. They stood next to each other moving to the music, looking vibrant and feeling the energy in the room. They skated away holding hands like schoolgirls and could've been mistaken for them as they entered the rink and glided across that maple floor.