(dance music) - [Josef] Roller skating is back, and it's gone mainstream.
But there's a group in Central Park that never stopped skating after all these years.
When I first came to New York as a teenager, one of the first places I visited was Central Park, but it wasn't the beautiful fountains or the historic bridges that impressed me most.
As I walked through the trails, I remember hearing the heavy bass of disco tunes from a mile away.
Once I got closer to the music, I noticed that it was coming from the center of a crowd that had formed on the pavement.
And in the middle of this crowd was a DJ spinning, and some of the most electric roller skaters I had ever seen.
Central Park is the most visited urban park in the United States, with an estimated 42 million visitors annually.
And over the years, many of these visitors have been treated to the sites and sounds of the Central Park Skaters.
Roller skating is going through a new Renaissance right now.
And since the pandemic began, skate sales have skyrocketed.
But those who point to TikTok and isolation boredom as the reason behind roller skating's renewed popularity, might not know the deeper history behind the skating community.
This is a story of a community that has been behind the scenes for decades fighting for the right and the space to skate.
(disco music) Even though skaters have been reportedly rolling in Central Park since the early 1900s, the ability to skate here has not always been a sure thing.
But today, the tradition of free skating in the center of the park continues to hold strong.
Each spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom, the Central Park Skaters hold their season opener.
So I showed up at the opener to talk with the skaters and hear their stories.
This is Lynnna Davis, the Vice President of the Central Park Dance Skaters Association.
Lynna's skates have brought her around the world, and she's been skating in Central Park since she moved to New York in her twenties.
Can you tell me about that first time you came to Central Park?
- We would all be skating, and one of the DJs would come and bring out a big boom box, and we would all skate around in a circle and just party until we couldn't party anymore.
I continue to come for the love of skating, to see the smiles on people's faces.
I think that I just come to release any stress that I might have.
- You're in the zone?
- Yeah, I do get in a zone.
(disco music) - During the 1970s, roller skating became linked to disco music, and it reached a new height of popularity.
During this time, skating was popular across the United States, and especially in New York City.
This is Brooklyn's Empire Rollerdrome, and some say it's the birthplace of roller disco, where Bill Butler, known as the godfather of roller disco, developed his skate style, jamming.
These spins, dips and turns, also known as roller rocking, became as ubiquitous in the skating world as the hustle was on the dance floor.
Young and old, celebrities and regular folks left it all on the rink.
Then there was the Roxy in Chelsea, which operated as a roller rink and disco, and was often referred to as the Studio 54 of roller rinks.
And in Central Park, skaters covered this area, called Dead Road.
Back then you could rent skates just up the hill from here.
This road has been linked to roller skating ever since.
But with the death of disco came the ensuing decline of roller skating.
Today, only three indoor ranks officially operate in New York and the boroughs.
I was told about one of the last true skate nights in the city, Brooklyn Skates in Bed Stuy, formerly known as Crazy Legs, which was formed by Lezly Ziering after the closure of the Roxy.
For 15 years, Brooklyn Skates has been a regular skate night hosted at a gymnasium inside a Salvation Army.
(disco music) They also host lessons.
So despite my fear, I headed over on a Friday night to learn how to dance on skates.
This is Jay and his wife Donna.
Jay has been teaching on-beat skating here since the very beginning.
I couldn't get the image of falling and humiliating myself out of my head.
But Jay assured me they would ease me into it, starting with this really stylish walker.
- [Jay] If we stand still like this, we can actually get familiar with that beat if we go like this.
That's very good.
You could feel that beat, right?
- [Josef] Yeah.
With Jay and Donna's help, it wasn't long before I was skating backwards.
I couldn't believe it.
(disco music) This is a place where everyone seems to know each other, with many of the Central Park Skaters coming here in the colder months.
Jay says they've worked hard to keep this community space accessible, and sometimes to even keep the doors open.
Something that I noticed when I was here, which was amazing, like, makes me wanna come back again, is that people were, like, just coming up to me and giving me pointers.
- Everybody helps everybody.
- [Jay] Very good.
- [Josef] As more and more people have gotten into roller skating recently, this community has continued to grow.
Why do you think it's gotten so popular recently?
- I think it's because the pandemic happened.
People needed to get out.
But the stores started selling roller skates.
'Cause I was shopping with my wife, we go into a woman's clothing store and they sell roller skates.
- [Josef] As the skating community grows, it's important for people to have places like Brooklyn Skates and Central Park to skate in.
(disco music) - We lost so many rinks in New York.
- But people knew that they could still gravitate here, and still find that joy.
- [Josef] This is Aviya, a newer member of the Central Park Skaters, but a long time fan.
- After seeing all the videos on YouTube, and actually coming and being here, it felt like walking into a movie.
These are, like, all my idols, for real.
When I'm here, and the wind's blowing through my hair, and I'm smelling the blossoms on the trees and hearing the people, like, skating, it, like, refuels my spirit and my soul unlike anything else.
- Though people have been skating in Central Park for nearly a century, they weren't always welcome.
During the early '90s, the NYPD and the Parks Department grew concerned with the loud music and the large crowds.
Some of the skaters met with the Parks Department to discuss the growing noise complaints.
This group of skaters agreed to shift down the hill a bit, and in return, they were granted a special events permit.
This sanctioned status allowed the skaters to keep grooving in Central Park.
That is, until the next administration took power.
In 1994, when Mayor Giuliani was elected, he began to enforce his zero tolerance, broken windows policy, based on the theory that cleaning up major crime required cracking down on minor offenses.
- When Giuliani was mayor, he took all the music outta Central Park.
All of it.
You couldn't even drum.
No kind of music at all.
We went the whole summer without music.
- [Josef] Up until this point, the skaters had been undisturbed, as long as their sound levels were monitored on a regular basis.
But this new expanded policy prohibited amplified music.
The skaters joined together to create the non-profit Central Park Dance Skaters Association.
And now they have a permit allowing them to play music in the park.
- They gotta keep us, we got music all the time now.
That's what, that's how it started.
- [Josef] That's like a story of resilience.
- [Harry] Yeah.
We didn't give up, right.
- [Josef] These days, the association is focused on getting the surface repaved.
- In the '70s and '80s, they automatically did it every year.
Every summer they would repave the surface.
2000s, they wasn't doing it anymore, so the ground got bad, got rougher and rougher.
- [Josef] There are plans to have the surface repaved in the summer of 2022, and some hope this will attract a new generation of skaters to help keep this tradition alive.
- And when they do it, oh, man, we gonna have skaters coming from everywhere.
Skating brings everybody together from all social backgrounds.
(dance music) - The skating Renaissance of today is continuing into the future.
A roller skating rink has opened up in Rockefeller Center for the first time since 1940.
There's also a paid roller rink opening up in Central Park.
Long gone are the days of trying to remove the skaters from the park.
Now that skating is popular, they're trying to bring more skaters in.
- I've seen when I scroll on my feed, people showing off their skating skills.
It's like a whole new generation of skaters because we've been skating out here for years.
- [Josef] Skating may be a trend today, but back when it was less popular, and the rinks closed down, and the boom boxes were outlawed, the Central Park Skaters never stopped doing what they love.
And based on their resilient history, I think they'll continue to skate in the Park for a long time.