Roller-skating has a storied, almost century-long history in New York City — from children in the 1930s skating in Central Park to the disco era of the 1970s and 80’s, when it became a keystone of African-American culture and rinks spread out across the city.
But in the early aughts, beloved rinks shut down one after the next: Skate Key in the Bronx, then The Roxy in Chelsea, followed by the self-proclaimed birthplace of rollerdisco itself, Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights, which closed its doors for good in 2007. Today there’s still just one dedicated, year-round indoor roller rink on Staten Island.
But the pandemic seems to have brought a reversal to that years-long trend, at least in the warmer months. There are more than a dozen places to skate on any given day of the week, from Rockefeller Center to Rosedale, Queens, making it easier for a new generation of skaters to fall in love with the sport.
“Prior to the pandemic … you didn’t have a lot of places,” said Edward Jacobs, 58, a near lifelong skater who leads biweekly skate sessions for Brooklyn Skates, in a steamy Salvation Army gymnasium in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant. “Now, every day of the week, there's some place to skate.”
While Brooklyn Skates, previously called Crazy Legs, has hosted skate sessions in the same gym for more than a decade, it once catered to an older crowd. Now it has regulars of all ages, and many young skaters who just got into the sport since the pandemic’s start. On a recent evening, they glided and spun across the wooden floors, splashed in the rainbow light of a spinning disco ball hung from a basketball hoop.
“I really appreciate this rink,” said 25-year-old Isa Jamira, taking a momentary breather from the heat of the dance floor. “[It] isn’t too fast, you have the elders here, to essentially guide you.”
When Brennan Albury, 34, got into skating during the pandemic for the first time he was homeless and out of work. He now dedicates much of his time to turning his customers’ favorite set of Jordans, into custom skates. He didn’t like the light-colored pastel skates on the market and wanted something sleeker.
“The thing about skating is, it’s addictive,” he said. “You get better day by day, and you become addicted to getting better.”
High up on the list of those who helped sow the seeds for New York City’s skating rebirth is 33-year-old Harry Martin, who grew up skating at Empire near where he grew up in Crown Heights. The rink’s closure devastated the community.
“Everyone stopped skating,” Martin said. Nearly a decade went by before he was invited by chance to skate at LeFrak Center in Prospect Park which opened in 2013. He said he fell in love all over again. He’d been struggling with anxiety and depression at the time, and near daily skating helped him manage that stress.
“It kind of saved my life at that time,” he said. But something was missing: “My culture was missing, African American culture.”
The music they’d play at LeFrak didn’t feel like it was for him. It was, “very white-run, kind of more cheesy,” as Martin described it. He went looking for other venues and found Brooklyn Skates and the Central Park Dance Skaters Association’s Skaters Circle, but there were limitations there too.
“There wasn’t any younger presence there,” Martin said. “It was a nice groove. But then the crowd was 40 to 65, even like 80-year-olds out there.”
He started hosting his own parties that he dubbed The Roller Wave in 2016, bumping the kind of music he wanted to skate to: R&B, Afrobeat and Afro House music. “No top 40,” he insisted. His parties began attracting hundreds of 20-somethings to venues like House of Yes in Bushwick and Alpha Space in Crown Heights. Those crowds got even bigger since the pandemic began.
“A lot of people were dealing with grief, loss, sorrow, depression,” he said. “Everyone felt that way and everyone needed an outlet.”
Melody Olivera, 29, from the Bronx, has a classic pandemic-skater origin story. She had fond memories of birthday parties of her youth held at the shuttered Skate Key, but didn’t dream of picking the sport back up again until the pandemic hit and she was locked out of her office job, scrolling through social media, itching for new outdoor outlets.
She found a pair of backordered skates online in May and waited a tedious 14 weeks until they arrived. At first she skated alone at parks near her house. “Anywhere I could find a flat, smooth surface, which is kind of hard to come by in New York City.” Then she found Orbit Collective, which organized an outdoor event near her house. From there she became obsessed, skating almost every day, connecting with dozens of new skating companions, who helped her take her skills to the next level.
“I've met so many amazing new people. I've had some amazing opportunities come my way as well,” she said. “I can't imagine my life without it.”
She’s thrilled by all the skating options this summer, she said, with more places for newcomers to be exposed to the sport and more opportunities for local skaters to show off their moves. She pointed to the elaborate DiscOasis at Wollman Rink in Central Park, where a handful of local skaters get paid to perform in the summer months.
The Roller Wave has outgrown its original venues and has settled in at 99 Scott in East Williamsburg, which can accommodate more than 1,000 skaters.
All that’s missing now is a full-time, year-round indoor rink, she said — one that’s more accessible to most New York City skaters than the ones on Staten Island, New Jersey or Long Island.
“I really hope that with all the interest that we've been getting, that we're able to have an indoor rink again,” she said. “The winters are rough for us.”
DON’T SLEEP ON THIS SUMMER OF SKATE
Here are some of the places to roll this summer.
The Roller Wave, various locations
The Roller Wave hosts pop up skate dance parties at a host of locations throughout the year. Their next event is scheduled for August 28th at 99 Scott Avenue in East Williamsburg. Tickets start at $20.
Skaterobics, various locations
Skaterobics, founded by retired correction officer Tanya Dean in 2015, hosts skate lessons at various locations in and around the city, most days a week. They do Sunday classes at St. John’s Recreation Center in Crown Heights, Saturday lessons in Queens Village and, on Thursdays and Sundays, they’re teaching lessons at DiscoOasis in Central Park. Some classes require a membership and others you can book for the day depending on the location. They’ve got classes outside the city at the American Dream roller rink in New Jersey and in United Skates of America on Long Island.
Skaters Road, Central Park
Skaters Road, or Skaters Circle, located just northeast of Sheep Meadow in Central Park is a storied destination for roller-skaters as far back as the late 1970’s. The area was closed off this month for a long-awaited resurfacing. There was some indication it might reopen for skaters on July 30th and 31st, but further damage to the new surface during the recent triathlon may set that back. Once it reopens, expect dance skaters to return to busting moves there, weekend afternoons from 2:45 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. The Central Park Dance Skaters Association has been caring for the circle since the 1990’s, but Bob Nichols, the group’s 75-year-old president, said he’s eager to see more younger folks in the mix: “I've seen things in the world that are cyclical and and roller-skating is one of those things,” he said.
Flippers Roller Boogie Palace, Rockefeller Center
Flippers Roller Boogie Palace has overtaken the iconic outdoor ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center for the season through October. The rink is open every day, with special DJ guests. Tickets range in price from $12 to $40 depending on the time and day.
Denny Ferrell Riverbank State Park, Harlem
Denny Ferrell Riverbank State Park near West 145th Street and Riverside Drive is open to skaters afternoons and evenings every day but Thursday through mid-September. They have sessions where everyone is welcome and evening sessions for adults only on Wednesdays and Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m. Entry costs $2 and it’s $6 to rent skates.
DiscOasis, Wollman Rink Central Park
Bask in the glimmering light of multiple disco balls at this dazzling roller rink pop-up at the Wollman Rink in Central Park. The rink is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets range in price depending on the day and time from $12 to $39 for special events. Skaterobics hosts special classes for kids twice a week and on Sundays for adults.
Pier 2 Roller-Skating Rink, Brooklyn Bridge Park
This waterfront seasonal roller rink is open every day through mid-September, and then on weekends from mid-September through the end of October. Admission costs either $7 or $11, depending on the day, though there are several free sessions open to the public throughout the week. Roller-skates and blade rentals cost $7 but you have to bring your own socks!
LeFrak Center Lakeside, Prospect Park
Through the end of October, the LeFrak Center Lakeside rink is open for roller-skaters every day of the week from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and on weekends from noon to 6 p.m. They’re occasionally open later for special events and dance parties. The next $10 dollar dance party is scheduled for July 29th, with an additional fee for lockers and rentals.
Brooklyn Skate Club, AKA Crazy Legs Skate Club, Bedford-Stuyvesant
What this school gymnasium turned skate rink lacks in air conditioning, it makes up for with reliably impeccable vibes. Twice a week, Brooklyn Skate Club hosts open skates with lessons from 7-8 (lesson is a loose term). Zip around the swampy arena — complete with disco ball taped to a basketball hoop and a DJ blaring disco and hip hop — and gawk at the moves of some of the most graceful skaters in town. An open skate session follows from 8 p.m. to midnight. The cost for the session and lesson together is $15 and skate rentals are an additional $7. They’re taking a hiatus in August but will be back up in September, along with additional classes on Saturday. Check out their instagram for more details.
Da Dome, East New York
Roller Jam USA
While the city once was home to a number of rinks in the disco-era, Roller Jam USA is currently the only year-round roller-skating rink. You can find out more about visiting and pricing here.
Summer Skate Series, St. James Park, Fordham
The tennis courts at St. James have been reclaimed, with free community skate sessions on weekends throughout the summer, organized in part by Nancy Nacim-Valdes, 59, and the group Skate Info Network. “Skating has never left New York. It seems like it’s been underground,” she said, adding she’s eager to bring the sport to more Bronx residents. The next date on the books is August 6th.
Skates in the Park, Rosedale
Ian Bryant, 52, picked skating back up during the pandemic after he went to an outdoor Stakerobics event. Now he’s running a free community skate of his own at P.S. 38 in Rosedale Queens, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Saturday. Skaters of all levels are welcome, but you have to bring your own skates, and protective gear is encouraged for beginners. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Skates in the Park on Instagram.
TWA Hotel, Roll-A-Rama, JFK Airport
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the TWA’s popup outdoor roller rink is open, weather permitting, on a first come, first serve basis through November. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $16 for kids under the age of 12.