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Harry Martin Wants to Revive Roller-skating, Pays Homage to Old School Rinks With Latest Project

Harry Martin is trying to revive an activity that was once a cornerstone of leisure and kinship in Black communities across the U.S.


Photo Credit: Janie Barber / The Roller Wave

Martin, a 33-year-old mastermind behind The Roller Wave, a traveling roller disco pop-up, describes roller disco as “a party on wheels.” The Roller Wave House BK is his latest project, which is a long-term installation set up in Brooklyn that pays homage to the old-school roller-skating rinks with updated amenities, such as a live podcast space and art installations.


Not too long ago, Black Americans couldn’t even explore the love of roller-skating, as the mere presence in roller rinks was barred in segregated spaces, even following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Only one night a week was set aside for Black skaters in the rink in the 1960s, and it was generally dubbed Soul Night or Martin Luther King Jr. Night, Martin said to NBC News.



“This is Black culture, Latino, Latina culture going to these skating rinks,” Martin said. “We’re the ones that brought the vibe to roller-skating. Back in the 1940s it was just, like, ballroom, ice-skating-looking dancing. But once you had that African American touch to it, we added that disco dance, that feeling to it.”


With no access to rinks, Black skaters took their talents to the streets where there were fewer restrictions. These places were Central Park in New York City and Venice Beach in Los Angeles, which became hotspots for Black skaters. These sacred places were instrumental for Black folks to just simply express themselves and have fun.


In the early 1970s, with the help of legal integration, roller-skating became synonymous with disco, especially for young Black folks coming of age in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.

Skating became more popular across the country. New York and New Jersey are known for partner skating, as well as trains and trios. JB style, which is named after the legendary James Brown, started in Chicago. Philadelphia skaters use a style known as fast backward. And in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virgina, snapping is the thing to do.


Martin, who grew up skating at the infamous Empire Roller Rink in Brooklyn, is helping to revive the roller-skating scene in New York City that was shut down due to a myriad of police and political interventions.

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