The Rink


James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’ blasted overhead, a last call for skaters to steal a few final laps before the rink closed for the day. In a final display of unbridled release, for once each skater’s face told more than their footwork. “Believe it or not, sometimes at some of these sessions, you can see different expressions of how people feel the music,” says Nathanial H. Simpson Jr., the General Manger and owner of The Rink, located at 87th and Greenwood. “You can have a song that’s 80 beats per minute–a medium speed song–some people can find that beat and go very fast, some people hear it differently, and go slower or smoother, and yet they’re still skating to the same beat.”

Open since 1975, The Rink stands as one of the last surviving roller rinks that sprung up during the skating revolution that rocked Chicago in the 1970s and 80s.  Beckoned by the beats and jams enmeshed in roller-skating culture, Simpson first opened The Rink at 8920 Ashland. By the mid-1970s, as thousands of roller rinks opened across the United States, disco had arrived with its drum machines, keyboards, and sugary lyrics. Soon, rinks and disco were one and the same. And when the mirror ball shattered in the early 1980s, the doors of roller rinks began to slam with equal vigor.

But in Chicago, a different set of beats tickled skaters’ feet. While other cities swayed to the likes of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, ABBA, and the Bee Gees, soul cultivated its own fringe skating culture based largely on the music and style of “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown. It became known, simply, as JB skating. The style incorporates many of Brown’s signature performance stunts: the toe-in-toe-out footwork often seen on JB skates is regarded by some as the roller equivalent of Brown’s “mashed potatoes,” his trademark move. JB skating’s gliding splits and jumps mirror those that Brown often executed at the climax of a performance. But explanations of what JB skating specifically is are as varied and inscrutable as the moves themselves, with each skater’s description filtered through their unique appropriation of JB.

“It means James Brown, Pass the Peas, JB’s Monorail. So that style of skating came from the music that we play. JB has become a skating style that came from the music. But you can skate JB to any type of music,” said Simpson.

Or, take it from skater Felix Hill, aka 100+:  “It’s a unique style that can only be demonstrated from the inner soul. If the mind can conceive it, the body can achieve it.”

The young have their own take, too. Malcolm M., age nine, says, “In JB skating you skate kind of smooth. Normal skating is when you skate at your own risk. Regularly skating don’t do anything.”

Stephanie, age thirteen, puts it plainly. “JB Skaters, they have this sort of–I don’t know how to put it–swag about them.”

Thanks to the enduring appeal of JB skating, the turning wheels of popular culture haven’t outpaced skaters at The Rink.  Moving from its Ashland location to current spot in 1985, The Rink has held on as pop culture cycled and recycled. Though the outfits have steadily changed, Chicago has continued to lap the rink without losing her footing.

The biggest impact on the footwork of JB-ers has been navigating the conflicting appeals of “new school” and “old school” beats, which has spawned two distinct crowds of JB skaters. The Rink’s ability to separately cater to each of these skating generations may explain how, in its 37th year as of this Thanksgiving, The Rink has managed to survive the mass closure of Chicago skating rinks, the death of disco, and even the passing of the Godfather himself.

The old school crowd (which is 30+, though still spry) rolls up on Tuesday mornings and Thursday and Sunday evenings. This is the crowd with which Simpson more readily identifies. This group skates to the slower, smooth R&B jams of yesteryear, which Simpson himself–a man who fills multiple capacities at the rink, from janitor to manager–DJs on Tuesday mornings.

“What’s not on there [YouTube] is the 30 and over set, because they don’t have the flare and the bling like the young JB skaters have. But they’re a solid group, they come in day in and day out. I have this particular lady that’s been coming for 40 years, and she owns a beauty salon, a very high-end beauty salon. She has taken off for Tuesdays for the last 30 years,” said Simpson.

Natasha McGruder first scratched The Rink’s floors when she was only eight. After moving back to Chicago, she returned to The Rink last year, this time with her own two children in toe. McGruder straps on her skates multiple times a week, and has become a regular at the Thursday old school sessions.

“This is such a community unto itself. When I tell people that I go to The Rink, they’re like ‘The Rink? The Rink we used to go to in high school? Really that’s still open? People still skate?’ My friends tease me mercilessly because I’m a 70s baby, so to pick up skating again in my forties sounds crazy to most of my friends,” said McGruder.

On the flip side, the “new school” scene, which stakes out the Rink as its own on Friday and Sunday nights, emphasizes the element of performance more so than its parent. On these nights, the Rink is akin to a club setting: flashing lights, a deep resounding bass, and the smells of burning rubber meld with night life’s scent of sensuality, risk, and danger. Here you might find the likes of CJ Smooth in the center of the rink, on one leg spinning backward in a circle, one arm raised, a rag in his free hand to collect the sweat from his brow.

“It’s not easy at all, and you can’t be scared,” said Smooth as a gaggle of female skaters looked on, swooning.

CJ belongs to a new school JB skate crew, managed by Felix Hill, that skates in various locations in and outside of Chicago. Hill, who took 3rd place in the World Skate Association in 2005 and has performed for notables such as Coretta Scott King (MLK’s wife), says he received his “code name” 100+ because he gives “all of that and then some.” His skate crew, which just returned from London and shot a video this past Saturday night, represents the second wind beneath the wheels of the skating community. The 2005 movie Roll Bounce (which hosted its casting call at The Rink) and rumors of Olympic inclusion have contributed to a notable resurgence.

“This year, roller skating was supposed to be introduced to the Olympics, but it didn’t make it. But it will definitely be there 2016. No doubt. And my crew is ready for that. That’s what we’re really ready for, to compete Olympic style, free-stylin’. They’ve never had it before. Not roller skating. VH1 is interested, Oprah Winfrey has seen it, and it all goes back to Roll Bounce,” said Hill.

Lining the walls of The Rink is a series of headshots of skaters past and present, particularly those patrons who followed The Rink when in it moved locations in 1985. Many of the photos feature faces that now grace the floor with lined foreheads and grey hairs, holding the hands of their children, and sometimes even their children’s children.

“Most of my friends are grown-ups here,” said Natasha’s eight-year-old son Joshua, one of Felix Hill’s protégés. “I saw him [Felix] skate earlier this year with the hundred plus skates that light up, and I decided to be him. I want to skate like him.”

The deep roots make sense when one looks around–people don’t just come here to skate, they live their lives here. While many zoom ahead, hips swinging and feet sliding to a beat that is entirely their own, some skaters circle in synchronized packs, moving to choreographed routines. Others skate in close pairs or with a herd of friends. Joshua is a member of one such unit, the self-formed and self-proclaimed Rink Rats, a small group of shorties aged 9-12.

“We’re all at different levels, it seems like it would be a bad group because we’re all at different levels but we all help each other,” said Malcolm Moore, leader of the Rink Rats. “If one person is not as good as the rest of the group then they come learn from the rest of us.”

Natasha McGruder calls such a group a “skating family.” And it’s an apt term. Beneath this roof exists an entire ecosystem, a people whipping around their confines, interweaving with fellow skaters, synched footwork commanding the polished surface.

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