Inside the reminiscence of New York’s roller skating extravaganza

For some people, a skating rink is just a place to slide around in a circle, not even very fast, going nowhere. But for its devotees and the creators of DiscOasis, a new Central Park skateboarding experience, it’s transformational, spiritual – time travel on four wheels.

On Saturday night, more than 1,000 skaters packed the Wollman Rink, strapped their hips together and stormed out in shimmering nostalgia. Spotlights shone from the surrounding trees, while a concert-level light show bathed the space in cyan, fuchsia, and gold. “Good Times,” that 1970s party staple, played from DJ Funkmaster Flex’s booth, as the crowd — some wobbly, some more experienced — parted for the pros: a dancer in baggy jeans tumbled into one room, while another flipped its wheels, unrolling into a headstand. For 10 minutes, it was all hot pants and stunts, and then ordinary New Yorkers – many with a not-too-distant style – came back.

Hovering over this opening night like a sequined demigod was Nile Rodgers, guitarist Chic, disco funk eminence and longtime skateboarder. He curated music for DiscOasis and, with voice intros, provides his cultural lineup from the 1970s and 1980s in New York, when he used to frequent the city’s now-closed, once-legendary rinks with Diana Ross and Cher. Kevin Bacon and Robert Downey Jr. also. (The ’80s were wild.) With some skill on wheels, “You feel like you have special human powers,” Rodgers said in a recent video interview. “You feel like you can fly.”

Skating is getting another flash of popularity, but DiscOasis sets itself apart from the city’s other rinks and pop-up events (Rockefeller Center is also temporarily hosting wheels) by its production value, theatrics, and pedigree. There are blooming disco balls up to eight feet in diameter, and a multi-tiered stage created by Tony-nominated set designer David Korins, who has done “Hamilton” and shows for Lady Gaga. The 13-person cast includes New York nightclub legends such as the long-legged skater known as Cotto, a presence in the city’s parks for more than four decades whose leg spins and pivots have influenced dozens of skaters.

“We call it jam skating,” he said. DiscOasis coaxed him out of retirement – he had both hips replaced – for choreographed shows five nights a week.

The energy is ecstatic and contagious. “Being on wheels is heaven for me,” said Robin Mayers Anselm, 59, who grew up frequenting Empire Skate, the famous Brooklyn emporium. “I feel more connected to myself and my spirit when I skate.”

That’s true even for newbies like Robin L. Dimension, an actress who wears an ornate jumpsuit and a chunky “Queen” necklace with her psychedelic-print skates. “I have a really cool outfit,” she said, “so I look good going down.”

Billed as “an immersive musical and theatrical experience,” DiscOasis started last year out of Los Angeles, the pandemic idea of ​​an events company led by a CAA agent. But its fundamental home has always been New York, and it will be open daily until October.

“For us, DiscOasis is a movement, it’s a vibe – we want as many people to be able to experience it,” said Thao Nguyen, executive producer and chief executive of Constellation Immersive, its parent company, which has partnered with Live Nation. and Los Angeles Media Fund to direct the series.

For the NYC skate community, it’s first and foremost a good floor. “You know, we’re not impressed with the delusion paraphernalia,” said Tone Rapp Fleming, a New York native and skater for 50 years, who came for a preview Thursday. This is mainly because ride-or-death skaters like him and his friend Lynná Davis, vice president of the Central Park Dance Skaters Association, skated on a garbage can lid, as she put it. But they praised the track’s new sliding surface, painted in primary hues of blue, yellow and red.

The creators of DiscOasis knew that if they won over the old-school skate team, the world would follow; Davis, an ageless marvel in rainbow-flecked braids and beaded, fringed custom wheels, helped cast. “Get it right, kids!” she cheered the younger dancers as they somersaulted through their routine, with a soundtrack that ranged from Queen to “Rapper’s Delight.”

Rodgers created the playlists for the performances, which take place throughout the night, interspersed with live DJs (the day is for more relaxed skating). A longtime New Yorker, Rodgers coined his skateboarding style at age 12 or 13 on a brief sojourn in Los Angeles, when he tore through town with other kids, performing little routines. “I had this way of skateboarding on wobbly legs,” he said. He still does, “even though I’m turning 70. And it looks cool.”

His team stood out even then: “We used to skate to jazz,” he said, recalling his grooves to guitarist Wes Montgomery’s 1965 classic “Bumpin’ on Sunset.”

Fast forward 30 years, and Rodgers has largely hung up his skates. But he was so energized by his association with DiscOasis that he approached him for the Los Angeles event, which rekindled his devotion. Now touring Europe, he’s been conjuring mini-rinks wherever he goes, one hotel room at a time.

“They lift the rugs for me and create a big dance floor,” he said. “I can skate in a little square. There’s no one there, because I skate at such odd hours – 4 or 5 in the morning.” (He doesn’t sleep much. As befits a disco-era fashion legend, he also has custom skates – orange, green, iridescent – that got stuck in customs en route to Europe. His favorite is a classic pair of black Riedells.)

Even for someone well-versed in skateboarding culture, the Los Angeles version of DiscOasis offered some lessons. Most skaters are only on the rink for about 45 minutes, Rodgers said. The space around Wollman has a no-skate dance floor and some Instagram-ready installations inspired by his music. The giant ball filled with oversized wedding bouquets, pearls and crooked mannequin legs, for example, is supposed to symbolize Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which he produced.

For Korins, the production designer, the space is reminiscent of Studio 54, but fresher. “We’re leaning towards this idea of ​​an oasis – if you think of mirrored balls and foliage coming together to have a child, that’s what we’re doing,” he said. (Think palm trees and baffled cacti.) And the Central Park location, with the Manhattan skyline towering above it, brings its own magic. “It takes all the best things about skating and disco and literally rips the roof off,” he said.

Like other skaters, Korins has a theory about why it remains addictive. “It’s really hard to find a life experience that’s kinetic and dynamic,” he said – you can flex your solo style and also get the communion of “one organism moving together.”

Shernita Anderson, the choreographer, saw this in action. For solos, the cast was on its own. “We were like, ‘Go away, live your best life!’” she said. “And that’s what they did..”

Pirouing and kicking high in the act was Keegan James Robataille, 20, a dancer trained in musical theater who only started skating two years ago as a way out of the pandemic. A swing at the company, this is his first professional gig, hired. He grew up near an rink in Amsterdam, NY “I remember going there all through high school and being like, ‘Wow, I wish I could skate backwards and do these cool tricks,’” he said. “And here I am performing in New York City, doing what little I would have dreamed of doing.”

A closing number – set to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”, naturally – came on and he left on his cue. He had the skaters in capes dotted with LEDs, like glowing butterflies.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in New York,” said Samantha O’Grady, a 24-year-old native. The clues she started to learn closed off “when I was a teenager,” she said, but the retro ambiance of DiscOasis gave her a glimpse of what the scene looked like before its time. “I sent a photo to my mother; she was so jealous.”

First-time visitors were already planning to become regulars, like Robbin Ziering, whose marriage was on wheels. “We love working, we love dancing, we love music – but we live to skate,” she said. “And that’s what it’s about.”

Kalia Richardson contributed reporting.

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