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Roller Jam: Every night is '80s night at South Florida roller rinks

“Spring Love” by Stevie B:

Miguel Carver looks devilishly happy as he rounds the corner of the roller rink. He skates close to the inside of the oval, bent slightly forward, lost in his own world. 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, 51-year-old Miguel 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, 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 in Davie. The adults here like the freestyle songs popular in South Florida during the 1980s — the skaters' glory days. There used to be about a dozen rinks down here filled with skaters every day of the week; I know because I used to be one of those skaters. Only a handful of rinks remains. Likewise, only a fraction of us who used to roll in this uniquely South Florida fashion, to tunes recorded here, still hit the rinks.

Galaxy itself 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 moldy smell, like gym shoes after P.E., that mixes with the aroma of piping-hot pizza. A sticker machine with flat metal plates waits to swallow quarters; slide in the coins and a sparkly animal-shaped surprise will pop out. It still costs 50 cents to rent a locker. Arcade games like Donkey Kong, Street Fighter II, and Mortal Kombat appear as if they haven't seen action in years.

All this nostalgia occasionally attracts novice skaters in costume. Tonight, they're Nova Southeastern University students too young to have experienced the styles they're mocking. Girls with crimped side 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 '80s night," a guy in a blond mullet wig informs 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 Nova students, who baby-step on brown suede rental skates with four orange wheels. A serious skater would never be caught in rental skates.

Miguel began skating when he was 16. He met his ex-wife at Galaxy. "She was pretty good — not as good as me — but she was real cute in her little outfits. Leotards."

Miguel opts to sit out the rest of the session. He sits down at a royal-blue laminate snack table. Across from him is Matt Claus, a 31-year-old speed skater who has torn it up at this rink since he was little. Matt has piercings that dot his face and dark, shiny hair that's long enough to pull into a ponytail. He rolls his pale-blue eyes at the Nova interlopers. The newcomers skate along the rink walls, in clear violation of protocol that gives speed skaters right of way at the outside edges of the skating floor. "It's always '80s night when they're here," he says.

Matt says he got kicked out of several high schools for making mischief. Apparently his mischievous streak is still strong. "All right," Matt 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 roller-skate in costumes. He decides: Hey, whatever floats their boats, right? He guesses that 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 toned biceps.

But what about the business-up-front, party-in-the-back wigs? I tell Miguel that the guys in wigs are borrowing a popular '80s hairstyle. He mentions metal bands like Queensrÿche and Cinderella and coos, "God, I love that music!"

Miguel's own hair used to flow down his back, all the way to the waistband of his pants. But about seven years ago, he asked a barber to chop his hair like Billy Ray Cyrus circa 1992: short on top, superlong in the back. But Miguel fell asleep in the barber's chair, and when he awoke, his locks only reached his shoulders. "I wanted to cry," he remembers.

“Jealous Fellas” by Dimples Tee:

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."

Miguel has to accompany his mother on an errand the following morning. So he ducks out early. As he exits Galaxy, 15 people start to shuffle-skate. Shuffling involves a group of skaters performing perfectly synchronized movements: a slight bounce down the stretch of the rink, the right leg crossing over the left to navigate the curves. If done right, shufflers 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, although tonight he seems to be concentrating on the females. He used to have a female skating partner who would shuffle behind him. And he had another 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."

Finding that special someone at the local roller rink is getting harder. The DJs no longer announce couples skate. Worse, there are fewer skaters to choose from and fewer rinks. Only three rinks in South Florida still feature adult nights. And the roller rinks themselves seem like an endangered species. Nationwide, there are fewer than 2,000 rinks today, half as many as in the early 1980s, 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 hits 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 on the floor 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 skating.

Jeff shrugs when I ask why he's the alpha male during the shuffle skate. "I've always been the leader," he says. He 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.

"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 pileup."

Forty-year-old Joey Parilla says shuffling isn't what it used to be. 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. Soon, he met, then married, a manager at Galaxy.

"It was the early '90s, 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 here solo, wishing he could convince 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 heel, then the other, then both. He hops in the air. He tap-dances Sammy Davis Jr.-style on skates. Next, he launches into a series of Saturday Night Fever-ish half splits.

“Egyptian Lover” by Egypt, Egypt:

The sounds of Egyptian Lover's 1984 song "Egypt Egypt" fill the building. It's a shufflers' favorite. Exhausted, Joey exits the rink carefully 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.

The rink was known as Hot Wheels until 2000, and Mario has been manager for the past five years. Before that, he worked at the rink 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 '80s, early '90s," Mario 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 that they rocked the house before crowds of 800-plus. In 1999, Hurricane Irene soaked all the musical evidence.

It was also in the early-'90s, as I entered high school, that 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 that 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 who 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 child-like. That might be because the décor consists of primary colors. Also, games like 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 with a backward hat, tribal tattoo on his right forearm, and spacers in his ears approaches Mario with a lengthy tale about someone who's talking smack. "I've known him since we were little gits," the redhead explains, "and now he tells me 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 rules of the roller rink have been drilled into the skaters. The cardinal rule is that once you leave, there's no reentry. 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 teen years. "I can honestly say," Mario says after the young man walks away, "that half my regulars here were rink rats when this was Hot Wheels."

There were so many rink rats in the late '80s, Mario recalls, that South Florida roller rinks like 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 a bare minimum, 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 wheels. The front wheels on my right skate are now pulling wildly in different directions. My body tingles from the vibrations as I try to stay vertical. The lack of control is completely unnerving.

“Shake It” by MC Shy D:

Jeff and I make it around the circle 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 "guy's shuffle." He rushes back to the floor.

He returns a few minutes later with a children's-sized soft drink in hand. He mentions that he met his ex-wife at a roller rink in 1992 and how he has 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 ten 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. Skaters gather around the lockers inside Super Wheels to replace their wheels with street shoes.

Jack Hernandez glides alone on the wood floor one 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. Caramel-colored biceps bulge under a T-shirt, and his tight curls are pulled into a short ponytail.

Gold Coast patrons 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 at Gold Coast, meanwhile, seem to draw inspiration from MC Hammer's old dance troupe; I glimpse Salt-n-Pepa hairstyles and 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 like a flying saucer in the dead of night.

Jack starts to chat me up after I point out that we have matching skates. He has been a regular at Gold Coast for ten 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 that I spoke with at Galaxy and Super Wheels told me bluntly that 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 room full 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 country.

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 that 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 that the rink uses country-western music as a tool to get rowdy clientele to settle down. But she emphasizes that Galaxy targets rule-breakers, not skaters of any particular race. "ALL Americans and Foreigners alike are welcome," she wrote in an email 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 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 '80s 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 jai alai 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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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie