“I never feel cooler than when I’m skating,” states Alex Appah, a health professional and ANC commissioner for Ward 3. She moved to D.C. four years ago (originally from San Francisco with many stops in between), and in September, this month’s District Fray cover star will celebrate her two-year skating anniversary.
When she was 13 years old, she wrote a tween poem about roller skating but was never a “rink rat.” Instead, she turned to dance and other interests. During the pandemic, she wanted to keep in shape (no Peloton for Appah) and embrace the nostalgic simplicity of old-school skating. Interested in rhythm or style skating — that enthralling combo of dancing on wheels — she began watching Instagram videos and practicing moves in her Cleveland Park apartment’s exercise room. Then she moved onto solo rolls in Rock Creek Park.
In November 2020, Appah saw an Instagram video of skaters in Anacostia Park, grabbed her gear and took an Uber across town. Smitten with the only skating rink in the National Park Service, she kept returning each weekend, meeting new people and learning new moves.
“I kept bringing more people into the cult of skate.”
As an advocate for D.C.’s roller skating community, Appah celebrates the unbridled joy of skating and uses her social media as a platform to promote this retro art on wheels. For July’s “It’s 1980 Something” skate party at Anacostia Park, she donned a vintage Lakers leotard, sweatbands, leg warmers and spandex in neon colors; rated other skaters’ fashions; and demonstrated some new moves.
“I’m very politically active and interested in social justice issues, but that is exhausting,” Appah says.
She recharges for the good fight by rolling.
“It’s one of the purest forms of joy and fun you can participate in, either alone with your headphones or in community, like the ones I have joined.”
On her own, and with M. Antonio Silas of Anacostia Park skate party popup TheLinkUpDC, Appah creates tutorials and offers private lessons and occasional classes in style skating. With more than 1,200 followers, her inspirational Instagram Stories document her skating journey, from early falls to progress in quad roller skills over the last two years.
She’s also a champion for making roller skating accessible for residents throughout the District. She promotes local skating organizations, such as TheLinkUpDC and GetYourSk8On Entertainment, which hosts the red carpet affair for skaters — Legends Heels, Hats & Wheels Gala — and the new summer series Let’s Skate DC at The Wharf: a free, family-friendly skating event held on the second Saturdays of June, July and August.
The Capital of the United Skates of America
“D.C. has a rich opportunity to create a legacy [for] roller skating,” Founder and Event Producer of GetYourSk8On Entertainment Saletta “Letta” Coleman states. “Roller skates aren’t just something that were discovered in your grandma’s attic. I’m on this mission to create access and preserve legacy for folks who enjoy one of the last great American pastimes.”
Deeply embedded in roller skate culture, Coleman has traveled the U.S. visiting major skating destinations and events. She served as an associate producer for the HBO documentary “United Skates,” an engrossing Emmy-nominated film presenting Black rhythm skating culture, documenting all that is lost — community, creativity and history — as rinks across the nation close. Since 2006, she has hosted the annual Soul Roll Invitational down in Tampa, and she’s also been working to make D.C. a national skating destination.
Legends Heels, Hats & Wheels Gala, slated for October 7 to 9 at The Anthem, is the pinnacle of Coleman’s work as a skate ambassador and historian. Designed specifically for the older community of Black skaters — those who protested for their rights to enjoy this pastime and developed their skills during the height of roller disco fever — Coleman anticipated this as a one-time event in 2019, but her devoted skaters demanded encore galas at the DC Armory, The View of DC in Rosslyn and The Fillmore Silver Spring.
For the upcoming Legends Gala, Coleman has gone all out. During the daytime, The Anthem’s general admission floor will become an all-ages roller rink with the upper galleries hosting the Let’s Skate DC Health & Fitness Expo with related vendors, merchandise, exhibits and speakers focused on health and wellness. Coleman hopes to keep the younger skaters and their families who visited The Wharf this summer engaged by inviting them to The Anthem for daytime skating and hopes the Let’s Skate DC series returns to The Wharf in summer 2023.
On Friday evening, there will be the Pier Pressure Fashion Event, which Coleman promises will be “the Met Gala on roller skates.” R&B legends Tony! Toni! Toné! will perform Saturday evening, and concertgoers are invited to stay afterwards in the upper galleries to watch Legends Gala skaters take over the floor of The Anthem while listening to national R&B DJs spin.
“One night a year, I can give my aunts, uncles and grandparents a magical night right here in D.C.,” Coleman shares of the gala. “My oldest guest, our matriarch Miss Edna, will be 86 this year. She skates better than most 20-year-olds.”
Hustle and Roll
Now in its second season, TheLinkUpDC is the District’s hottest summer skating party. Hosted by co-founders Darren W. Jackson II and PJ Camacho, the free event is held at the Anacostia Park Roller Skating Pavilion. DJ Prodigy sets the vibe for the monthly theme and even offers his teenage mentees a chance to spin sets for the skaters, too.
Camacho, a teacher at IDEA Public Charter School and father of two, is always thinking about educational partnerships and youth-focused opportunities.
“What are my students doing in the summer when school’s out?” Camacho says. “We want to create a great experience, make sure it’s inspiring and welcome our youth and community to a safe place.”
TheLinkUpDC is getting a lot of well-deserved positive attention this summer. Comacho estimates more than 500 people show up during each five-hour event, which feature local organizations, vendors, merchandise and even an impromptu barbershop.
Antonio Silas, content creator and grant writer for TheLinkUpDC collective, says the event is also a spectator sport, with people unfolding lawn chairs and lugging ice chests to watch the skating.
“At the end of the day, TheLinkUp is about community,” Silas says of the appeal. “It’s like a tribal thing. You hear this music and everybody’s moving. It’s a beautiful art, a form of self-expression. But at the same time, it’s about us coming together and being positive.”
Heal on Wheels
The positive therapeutic benefits of roller skating merge the mental, physical and communal.
“During Covid-19, I wanted to do the things I loved as a kid,” Comacho says. “And then I could feel it was going to become a lifestyle.”
Skating — as an adult — for just over a year, Comacho’s trajectory toward bringing rhythm skating back to the District has moved at lightning speed, from igniting his passion to pre-planning the first LinkUp event last July.
Even Coleman, a veteran skater, found her wheels during a time of trauma. A Floridian who settled in Alexandria, she witnessed the tragedy of 9/11 near Pentagon City.
“Skating was introduced to me by a friend, and I had to find a way to heal through music and movement,” Coleman says. “So, my attachment to skating runs deep. I’m in it to give back.”
Silas — who works in Baltimore focusing on food access, financial education and housing stability — states skating is all about self-improvement, which is why he believes the skating community is so inclusive and welcoming. In one of his educational videos on Instagram, he speaks of the mindfulness of practice. Skating is about intentionality; you can just roll and be in the moment or concentrate on a difficult step and challenge yourself to try something new.
Appah’s popular and motivational Instagram videos document her growth and allow her to reflect on her progress. By publicly documenting her progress, she helps dismantle the unhealthy facade of social media perfection while also building a supportive community. Through Instagram, Appah has connected with other skaters around the country, sharing tips and encouraging each other.
She makes sure to give credit to the influencers who have inspired her own moves.
“Everybody wants to look perfect on social media. If you see the first video, I was not very good. I feel pretty proud of the progress I’ve made, and a lot of people have helped me get there. It wasn’t just me.”
One District Under a Groove
In Chicago, there is “JB” (James Brown) style fluid, fancy footwork; Detroit has Pepsi lines, with a crew working in tandem like an old doo-wop group; New York, Atlanta, Cleveland, Philly and other cities across the country have their own regional skating styles.
In D.C., there’s snapping, a regional style of rhythm skating as distinctive as go-go, the gin rickey or mambo sauce.
The basic step, which originated in Baltimore, involves a quick 180-degree turn on one foot with the lifted knee kicking out. Performed solo skate style, or with a partner offering stabilization, the snapper can freestyle, extending their pivots, gliding and dropping during their turns.
But unlike some other major U.S. cities, D.C. has a nationally-known style with no dedicated indoor rink.
“Adams Morgan had a rink [National Roller Skating Rink] that’s now a Harris Teeter,” Coleman says. “The District has not had an indoor roller rink since that rink closed more than 25 years ago. This is our time again. So, what are we gonna do with it?”
Outdoor spaces in the city offer some respite – but with limitations. Everyone loves the vibe of Anacostia Park, for instance, but the rink closes during inclement weather; having only one location also isn’t accessible to everyone in the city.
Coleman laments her 12-year-old daughter Alexandra, who serves as “the best production assistant” for the upcoming Legends Gala, isn’t a skater “because we don’t have year-round skating.”
“I would love to see D.C. utilize more park spaces for skaters,” Appah shares. “What’s more family-friendly than roller skating? You can rent skates and have a good time for $10. It doesn’t take that much. You just need to pour concrete. Just give us a little space and use it for other stuff different times of the year.”
“When you think about the cultural significance roller skating has — especially in the African American community, where you could throw a rock and hit a good skater — and there’s no indoor rink?” Silas states. “That makes no sense.”
All the dedicated rollers are doing their part to keep the culture of skating alive and well. TheLinkUpDC team offers free classes to beginning skaters, and Comacho has introduced skating into his school. Appah has advocated for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to consider adding more skating options for future planning. Coleman is searching for partners in the District: warehouses, churches, schools and more to open up their spaces to D.C.’s skating community.
Last November, various D.C. roller skating organizations united and protesters rolled from the White House to the Mayor’s Office demanding an indoor skating rink in the District during the DC Rally to Roll Roller Skate Parade.
“Roller skaters, roller bladers, style or speed, quads or inline, D.C. street skaters, Skate DC, DC RollerGirls team, whoever — we’re all one community,” Coleman shares. “If you put wheels on your feet, you’re a skater, one nation under a groove. And we need space to skate together.”
Don’t miss Let’s Skate DC’s final 2022 event at The Wharf on Saturday, August 13 from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. and Sunday, August 14 from 3-7 p.m. Children’s skate rentals are $10; adults must bring their own skates. Follow them on Instagram @letsskatedc for more information.
Alex Appah and M. Antonio Silas are teaching a new two-session series in August: The Drillz for Skillz Series on Sunday, August 21 at Anacostia Park Roller Skating Pavilion. The series will consist of Session 1: Foundations of Transitions and Skating Backwards and Session 2: The Basics of Spinning. Follow @chocolatecityskate and @silas.on.wheels for more information.
Legends Gala takes place October 7-9 at The Anthem and Anacostia Park. Tickets and pricing vary by event and package level. RSVP for the events at Legends Gala, including the Tony! Toni! Toné! Concert at The Anthem at getyoursk8on.com or on Instagram @getyoursk8on.
To learn about the Black cultural history of roller skating, check out the digital repository of National African American Roller Skating Archive at Howard University at ourfamilyskateassociation.org. Also, watch D.C. director Tree Walters’ 2021 indie film “Old School Rollers,” featuring D.C. style skater and educator Kenneth “Rollo” Davis, which has lined up local screenings. Check local movie theater listings for future “Old School Rollers” showings. “United Skates” is available to stream on HBO+.
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