The night started wobbly.
But after a few laps, I was gliding around the roller rink lost in the tunes of Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” and The Fat Back Band’s classic “I Found Lov’n.”
I waited for the first chords from New Edition’s “Candy Girl” but no such luck.
No, I wasn’t daydreaming about 1985.
I was living in the moment at the Wells Fargo Center. The Spectacor Events and Entertainment group, a division of Comcast Spectacor, partnered with local skating crew Great on Skates to host the Roller Skating at Wells Fargo experience. The flooring underneath the Philadelphia Flyers ice rink was transformed into a roller rink because, as it turns out, roller-skating has wheeled its way back into our consciousness. It’s playful. It’s TikTok friendly. And thanks to Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s supergroup Silk Sonic, roller-skating had its own theme song, appropriately named “Skate.”
But the bottom line is roller-skating is nostalgic: It reminds us of a simpler time when strobe lights set off the party and it only took one couples’ skate to fall in love.
“We just found the popularity had soared,” Emily Dunham, senior vice president of the Spectacor Events and Entertainment division at Wells Fargo, said of the all-day event that drew nearly 1,000 guests to the seven back-to-back hour-long skate sessions. “We wanted to find new events, safe events that could bring the community together, and given the popularity of skating, we knew that would be a winner.”
The Roller Skating at Wells Fargo Center experience was a one-time deal, but “although they aren’t 100% sure,” it looks like there are plans to do it again. The South Philly venue isn’t the only place where events venue organizers opted to make their flooring skate-friendly. Both Dilworth Plaza at City Hall and Blue Cross RiverRink, along the Delaware River Waterfront, are coming off of successful, skate-filled seasons. There was a 20% jump in attendance at the RiverRink this year compared with pre-pandemic numbers, said Jackie Lai, director of parks and attractions at the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., which operates the rink.
The real winners, however, are the year-round roller rinks. A popular hangout spot for tweens and teens in the 1970s, 1980s, and ‘90s, roller rinks had become many of the childhood past times whose popularity was replaced by at-home video games. Many rinks closed as inline skating became popular and businesses moved from the city to the suburbs.
However, this summer, according to Tracy Medley, managing partner of Camden’s Millennium Skate World, sessions filled up before they started. “The resurgence is bringing back older, mature skaters who made roller-skating popular back in the day,” Medley said.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when quad skates — the classic four-wheelers — emerged from our basement storage bins into Nordstrom and onto Amazon waitlists. (Much like bikes, there appears to be a roller skate shortage.) But India Bernardino, founder and co-owner of Great on Skates, said its resurgence has a lot to do with the pandemic and everything to do with social media.
“People couldn’t get together, but they could go outside and skate,” Bernardino said. Skaters who aced their dancing techniques — much like the yogis who did perfect handstands — shared videos of themselves fast-skating, fast-backward skating, and rotating between fast-backward skating and backflipping fast-skating. “People would post new skating videos every day, and then before they knew it, they were up to like day 65 in a 365-day run of skating [posts].”
This is where Bernadino comes in. The kids — and let’s admit it, the adults, too — wanted to show off their skills but they were rusty. They wanted to skate like Instagram and TikTok street skaters like Atlanta-based Kamille Boyd-Gillmore and Los Angeles-based Ana Coto. Bernardino looked up and realized that the weekly beginner and intermediate skating lessons she teaches with her Great on Skates business partner, Shemar Cunningham, were full.
“It’s about tricks and dancing now, the rawness of the skating culture. It’s about the art,” said Bernadino, who teaches students how to dance, skate backward, and even do splits.
Bernardino comes by her skating skills honestly. Bernardino’s dad, James Burno, known around town as Master Jay, is a legend in Philadelphia’s street skating community. In the late 1970s and ′80s, Burno, along with skating OGs like Clyde “Ice” McCoy, Greg Clauser, and Irvin “Irv” Williams, were known for their high-performance dance routines in front of Philadelphia landmarks like Boathouse Row, Suburban Station, and Penn’s Landing. These are the guys who put the Philadelphia-style fast-backward skating on the map.
“It’s really great to see this comeback,” said Burno, his wide, friendly eyes hidden behind trademark dark shades. “But the truth is the trend never left.” While the rest of America was inline skating and ice skating, the Philadelphia skating community was still popping and locking.
Although I couldn’t keep my balance skating with a selfie stick, nor did D.J. Breezy play a single New Edition song, it was a good time. McCoy, who was his normal, sharp self in a white suit, white newsboy cap, and black-and-white spectator skates, helped me get my skating moves back. (A little skate movie trivia: McCoy was an extra in the 2005 film Roll Bounce.) After a few near trips, McCoy told me to bend my knees as he held my sweaty hand.
“Don’t look down,” McCoy said. “You don’t look at your feet while you are walking, do you?”
Nor did he allow me to clutch the railings like my life depended on it. It took a minute before I believed him, but it wasn’t long before I was skating. We whizzed by other newbies taking Great on Skate lessons in the center of the rink.
After about three laps, Ice let go of my hand, and I was on my own. Youngsters flew by me, their high-top fades a blur and selfie sticks in hand. The thunderous beats of Yeezy, C-Breezy, and Drizzy pulsated through the rink. (That would be Kanye West, Chris Brown, and Drake.)
Even with my mask on, I was having fun.
“It feels so good to be back out here,” said Rochelle Young, a 40-something mom, as she slowed to my pace. Young heard about the Roller Skating at Wells Fargo event on Facebook, and she’s a regular at Millennium’s skate night. “I used to skate when I was a kid and hadn’t for years, but I went back to it last year as a form of exercise and lost a lot of weight,” Young said. Then she turned around and took off in a fast-backward skate. She beckoned me to follow her.
But because I didn’t want to fall down, I decided to keep moving forward.
Where you can roller-skate
Most Philadelphia-area roller rinks are open year-round and offer lessons.
1001 Front St.
7017 Roosevelt Blvd.
11586 Roosevelt Blvd.
1900 Carman St., Camden