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A ‘Skate Migration’ Is Changing How Atlanta Rolls

To parse the different regional roller skating styles in metro Atlanta rinks, watch the traffic patterns.

Sparkles Family Fun Center in Smyrna, Ga. on a recent Thursday night offered a case study: Locals skating in the hometown style churned the floor’s edge, punctuating their synced steps with hand claps that rose from the shoulder. Skaters in the New York-New Jersey-style bobbed steadily and pivoted in tight circles at the center of the crowded rink. A critical mass of skaters doing Chicago’s brand of fluid, James Brown-inspired footwork, or JB skating, carved a jet stream between the crowds.

It was the warm-up party for the Jivebiscuit Skate Family Reunion, one of the longest-running national gatherings of Black roller skaters. The 17-year-old event, held in February, is one of several annual parties that have made Atlanta a skating hub, bolstered by a steady, decades-long influx of Black residents from other cities.

“You can pretty much see every style you’d want to see in Atlanta,” said Terron Frank, who traveled to Atlanta from Portsmouth, Va. for the JiveBiscuit national skate party.

“It’s definitely like the Great Migration meets the skate migration,” said Reggie Brown, 40, a JB skater and music producer who grew up in Chicago. Though he now lives in New York, Brown visits Atlanta frequently to skate. “We take our cultures with us when we go.”

That commingling has Atlanta’s stalwart skaters concerned about keeping their distinctly energetic and percussive style alive. They say Atlanta’s newer skaters, who have wide access to regional variants, increasingly practice a hybridized type of skating that’s not rooted in any one tradition.

“If you don’t understand the foundation, you have the potential to lose it altogether,” said Vaughn Newton, the skating choreographer for the 2006 coming-of-age movie “ATL.” Newton, 58, is a respected bridge between the city’s younger and older skaters. “That’s what the younger generation is missing, that we all share a certain foundation.”

Anthony Francis, a founding member of Atlanta’s Fresh Dance Crew, showed skaters how he finishes a Yeek routine.CreditCredit…

On any given night in Atlanta — certainly on a destination party night — a D.J.’s song choices can activate or chill the various pockets of culture swirling the floor. So when D.J. Arson played “Presha” by 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, a standout of the trap subgenre, on the second night of Jivebiscuit at Stone Mountain Skates in Stone Mountain, Ga., the Atlanta-style skaters took their cue.

Paul Antonio Johnson led a procession along the perimeter, his high knees evoking a drum major in a marching band. He called out routines; the skaters behind him clapped and matched cross slides to the pounding beat. The maneuver is a foundational element of the Atlanta style, where a skater crosses feet laterally in sync with the music. Though known by different names across regions, Atlanta skaters in the 1970s first termed it the crisscross. Younger generations smoothed it out, lifting their skates for a cross-body step they called the cross slide.

“If you know what you’re looking for,” says Newton, “you’ll see the crisscross. And that’s what everything is built on.”

Arson stayed in trap mode for the next half-hour before shifting smoothly out of the simmering, drum-heavy hip-hop into mid-tempo R&B with muscular grooves and few lyrics. The Atlanta skaters slowed down and cycled off the floor while the JB skaters took over, swaying and lunging, arms high. They had buoyancy and finesse.

Saturday nights at Cascade Family Skating draw a younger crowd of skaters.

Atlanta style embodies “a lot of energy, showmanship, ugly face. It’s real hype,” said Kenneth Anderson, known as Kojak. He and his wife, Tijuana Anderson, or Lady Tee, 61, are pillars of the Atlanta skating community. “It’s like riding a motorcycle on 285 and just letting your hair down,” Kojak, 62, said. “It’s a real aggressive style.”

In the 1980s, Kojak’s generation made anthems of gritty, thumping songs like Edwin Birdsong’s “Rapper Dapper Snapper” and “So Whatcha Sayin’” by E.P.M.D.

When Joi Loftin moved to the area from Detroit in 1988, synth-funk and early hip-hop were prevalent. In 1995 she and other transplanted Detroit skaters, who were used to up-tempo R&B, began to pool their money each week. “We would rent Golden Glide rink just so we could play the music that we wanted to skate to,” she said. “That session is still going on to this day.”

Loftin soon developed relationships with other rink owners, D.J.s and skaters. She and John Perkins, a transplant from New York, started Sk8-a-Thon in 1996, one of the first recurring national parties that showcased Black roller skating styles. Their first event drew 836 skaters from around the country to the Golden Glide in Decatur, six miles east of downtown Atlanta. Over the years it grew to accommodate thousands in multiple rinks over four days, making a Labor Day trip to Atlanta a Black roller skating ritual Loftin hopes will continue now that she’s held her last Sk8-a-Thon in 2023.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Terron Frank, 34, who traveled from Portsmouth, Va. for Jivebiscuit. “You can pretty much see every style you’d want to see in Atlanta.”

Atlanta’s weekly sessions and annual national parties have made the city a hub for Black skaters.

As destination parties became more successful, and the population influx continued, Atlanta natives say they began hearing less of the rugged music that drives their style. They mourned beloved rinks like the Riverdale location of the Sparkles chain and the Greenbriar Skating Rink, which changed ownership in the 1980s and was renamed Jellybeans before closing in the 1990s. Increasingly, D.J.s filled their adult nights with favorites from the big parties.

“A lot of other people just, they stopped skating,” said Kojak.

Tasha Klusmann, a historian with the National African American Roller Skating Archive, has watched the national trend of the destination party format take hold at local weekly sessions and worries local scenes are being diluted. “In some ways they are destroying, I think, the fabric of what made roller skating this community-builder,” Klusmann said. “When you change the tempo of the music and you change basically the culture of those sessions, you’re not going to get what you got.

The city’s younger skaters often gather at Cascade Family Skating in Atlanta, where the average age was in the early 30s on a Saturday night in March. It’s one of the country’s most famous rinks, having hosted Beyoncé’s 21st birthday party and served as the setting for rink scenes in “ATL.”

At Cascade, the skaters moved with skill and energy but not in the Atlanta vernacular. A few practiced New York-New Jersey and St. Louis styles. Others frequently broke traffic to dance in place or do floor work in the rink’s corner. Their soundtrack comprised southern rap from Gucci Mane, Gorilla Zoe and Lil’ Keke, but there was little of the synchronized clapping and crosses often seen in Atlanta style.

A clerk handed out skates at Cascade Family Skating, a rink in Atlanta where Beyoncé partied for her 21st birthday.

“I try to try all the styles, no matter what timing of the music. I don’t want to box myself in,” said Romello Stafford, 28, a professional roller skater who grew up in Atlanta. He spent the night doing lush spins and freestyle footwork.

Atlanta skaters say only two weekly bastions of their endemic style remain, and they happen on Sunday night at the same time. The younger crowd visits Cascade, skating to trap and contemporary Southern hip-hop. The older skaters frequent Sparkles in Smyrna for ’80s funk and its descendants.

“I just never thought there would be a time in Atlanta where I could only go one night a week to hear a real Atlanta-type session,” Johnson said.

Nearly 300 people showed up to Sparkles Family Fun Center for a party centered on Atlanta-style skating.

Those weekly sessions are augmented by one-off parties focused on the Atlanta skating style. Lady Tee and Kojak have been throwing such events once or twice a year since the 1980s. In March, the couple hosted what they estimated was their 50th party, where they asked skaters to wear western attire.

About 300 showed up to Sparkles in wide-brimmed hats, boots and tasseled rancher shirts tucked in under massive belt buckles for the occasion, except the O.G. skater Greg Cade, known as Cowboy, who dresses that way all the time.

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D.J. Young Soul, 15, spanned styles while focusing on thick funk. The crowd, with an average age in the mid-40s, skated together gleefully before Lady Tee invited the skaters to the floor by age group, starting at 60-and-up, and working downward by decade. When he heard the syrupy bass that opens Zapp & Roger’s “More Bounce to the Ounce,” an excited Newton skipped ahead in line. “I looked at my folks and I said, ‘Let’s do it. We ain’t 60 yet, but we close.’”

He and his folks stalked the floor in routines they’d been practicing together for over 30 years. Several of their movements featured the quick lateral hop recognizable within Atlanta’s Yeek dance culture as The Skip, and seen more widely in R&B star Ciara’s “One, Two Step” video.

As Newton continued circling the floor, over a dozen skaters representing four different crews got in sync behind him. For a couple joyful minutes, they all became kids again.

“You have one or two good nights of skating, your whole week goes great.” he said. “You go to work smiling, talking to your co-workers and they’re wondering what you doing.”

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