“I got my first pair of skates from my dad when I was 5,” says Keith, a lanky, green-eyed teen with bleached hair. “He took me down in the basement, and said, ‘Now son, here’s how you skate.’ I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m teaching him things now!”
At 19, Keith is perhaps one of Chicago’s most talented young rollerskaters: I once watched him leap into the air, do a full spin-and-a-half, land backward directly into a somersault and then yawn. (Eat your heart out, Tara Lipinski.)
Keith has some serious competition, though. There’s the man — blazing in head-to-toe fire-engine red — who revolves like a madden windmill, arms stretched wide at a max wingspan. After more revolutions than I can count (50? 100? A million?!), he tiptoes into a Cheshire Cat-grinning faux-fall that sends his peers whooping and clapping. Another follows, whirligigging to the ground in a tight tornado of en pointe spins, wheels peaked. A woman in tight white jeans goes next, doing her best version of the Russian hopak dance to the beats of Pretty Ricky’s “Grind with Me.”
If the last time you roller-skated was to “Crocodile Rock” at a sixth-grade birthday party, prepare yourself. James Brown “JB” style skating (yes, rollerskating) is a Chicago original, built around intricate footwork and inspired by the over-the-top dance moves and sounds of The Godfather of Soul. It’s also an art form that reps for its city: a means of reconnecting with community while peacocking a craft that’s singular in its style. Just as a new generation of Appalachians are readily embracing old-time music, and the Mississippi Delta has seen a passing down of Bentonia blues, JB skating ensures that this hyer-local public display of culture is still living, breathing and taking on new forms.
“The thing about JB style skating,” Keith says, “is that we really care about making sure every move that we do is clean. Other cities don’t practice as much as we do.”
JB style, popular primarily within African-American communities on the city’s South Side, is often said to have originated with Calvin Smalls, who says he came up with the new way of rollin’ with a few friends in 1971. (A 1995 account from the Chicago Tribune claims the skating style arrived even earlier, around the time Brown started making music in the mid-1950s.) But no matter the origin, it’s the kind of funky acrobatics that seems worthy of inspiring a new religion, Broadway revue or Olympic sport.
What’s more, JB skating is a point of chest-swelling pride and respect, both for individual skaters and within the greater context of the roller nation. It means something to play for college basketball teams like Duke and Kentucky. It means something to slip on an Arsenal jersey. And it means something to skate JB both at home and across the country.
“My skate name is ‘Xstra’ because that’s just my style. Everything I do is extra,” a lithe woman tells me, striking her signature pose: arms crossed in an X in front of her body. She’s been commanding the floor (her head back, cackling), as she sings along to Ginuwine and skates with all the flair of a Beyonce backup dancer. “I’m so extra, you know I had to make sure the spelling of my name was extra too!”
JB skating happens all across the city, but it’s the Rink (official name: The Rink Fitness Factory) that’s worthy of pilgrimage. (And, yes, it is the rink from the Chance the Rapper song, “Juke Jam”.) Opened 42 years ago, the rink is simultaneously a neighborhood nucleus and a place for skating obsessives. Beginners’ clinics for kids and a rollicking skate night for those 50-plus exist alongside JB diehards who “like” with unabashed joy Facebook memes that proclaim their skate-serious status: Single? Taken? No, too busy skating, one wisecracks. Skating is boring… said no one ever, another quips alongside an illustration of a unicorn wearing roller skates. It’s also the rare late-night haunt that is, in many ways, pure. There’s no liquor sold, no drugs, no fighting: just everyday athletes revolving in a kind of meditation-on-wheels.
“There’s a lot of different styles of skating out there in cities like Memphis and Detroit. They’re all different,” Xstra explains. “In Atlanta, they do more lifts and tend to bounce. They do high steps. But here, we’re all about the footwork. Whenever I skate in other cities, they know I’m from Chicago because I skate JB.”
My first time at The Rink last year was nothing short of a spiritual experience. A lifelong James Brown enthusiast, I’d heard about the skating style through my Mardi Gras krewe, The Super Bad Sex Machine Strollers (we dance in parades to James Brown music), and was determined to see it in real life. While the roller skates made me feel like a Clydesdale on a skateboard, the JB skaters looked as if they were born wearing them. A woman with custom pink-and-green skates hooked her ankles, one behind the other, then moved gracefully on the outside edge of her wheels. A couple skating side-by-side fluidly transitioned from hip-swiveling into simultaneous splits, then back up, no big thing. A 6-foot-4 dude not only completed 10 perfect ronde de jambes — but did it on roller skates! As I struggled to stay upright while skating backward, these pros were seemingly defying all laws of physics, physical limitations, and in some cases, maybe even gravity.
So I kept coming back. Not to try to morph from a wobbly-skating ugly duckling into a gorgeous JB swan (that will, sadly, never happen), but to be humbled by the magnificence of it all. The majority of skaters at the Rink have a commitment to the craft that goes far beyond mere hobby. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you how they’re skating three or four nights a week to practice: skating at home, skating in the streets. It’s a superfly form of self-expression and, for many, a lifestyle.
And it’s all so unassuming. From the outside, The Rink is a nondescript warehouse along a main drag in South Chatham. On the inside, though, the unique topography is a sight to behold. There’s the skating area itself, backlit with multicolored neon and a DJ booth perched above, crow’s nest-style. Red-and-blue lockers checkerboard the wall, and toward the back, a separate practice area striped with mirrors is corralled off for those fine-tuning their new steps. There’s a White Sox air hockey table near the cheese fry and fruit punch-slinging concession stand, and a wood paneled Skating Hall of Fame that’s also home to the classic poster of Michael Jordan palming Spike Lee-dressed-as-Mars-Blackmon (“Best on Earth, Best on Mars”). Perhaps most majestically, a giant banner of Barack Obama’s face hangs from the ceiling alongside a rendering of Martin Luther King Jr.
“The thing about Chicago style, JB style, skating is that we’re smooth,” laughs Choo Choo, a 65-year-old employee of The Rink wearing an I Love Jesus hat cocked backwards. As he hefts my well-battered orange-wheeled rentals, the old-school skater offers a sage piece of advice: “If you want to get really good, you have to get your own skates eventually.” I nod knowingly. I’m pretty much the only person in the entire place without a pair of my own.
“I don’t have a signature move yet, but I want to get really good at spins,” explains Marcel, a cheery 21-year-old who’s a barber by day. At the Rink, the center of the skating floor is reserved for the tempests: the skaters who spin, twirl and make themselves into tops so quickly it’s like watching the human body become a Waring blender. I watch him in front of the practice mirrors, skates in a wide second position as he prepares the spin he’s about to take into the spotlight.
All the while, a swirl of skaters loop around the main stage, each putting on a show of their own. A woman with thick dreads, a white Ralph Lauren bucket hat and a Bob Marley shirt stirs her arms high above her head as she wobbles her knees with earthquake voracity then freezes into a static mini-split, rolling all the while. Three men skate in a pack, coordinating hitch-kicking footwork (known as “the crazy leg”), spins and dips in perfect unison.
It is, as Choo Choo explained, all just so damn smooth: both personal and public, performance art and therapy. And in a world that’s increasingly homogenized, what could be better than the muscle-to-bone, sweat-across-brow rush of actually — joyfully — being in the moment?
“I started skating with my church group when I was a kid, and actually learned how to JB to gospel music,” explains a relative newcomer named Jerell as Kendrick Lamar pulsates. “Our style in Chicago is all about that connection with the music and your body. No one else does it like us.”
He pauses, then breaks into a grin. “When you’re out there skating, I swear, nothing else matters.”