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Roll 'Em If You Got 'Em: Participants spin their wheels at CELL space's rollerdance jams.

Rollerdance fever still rages in Potrero Flats and Golden Gate Park

By Emily Zuzik

I dusted on the baby-blue eye shadow, pulled my hair into Suzanne Somers-style ponytails and sang along with the soundtrack from Xanadu in preparation. After all, my flatmate had told me about roller-skating in my neighborhood, with DJs and lights. My mind reeled with memories of pompons, colored lights, smoke machines and "Endless Love." One problem: I had no wheels. But I figured with my dy-no-MITE get-up and energy, they would have to let me in and forgive the blades.

I walked in through the long wall of multicolored graffiti tags along Bryant Street only to find myself in the middle of an opening at the Crucible Steel Gallery. With time to spare, I helped myself to some wine and crackers. Through the back wall of the gallery loomed a dark open space. I'd found it.

Upon entering, I noticed this party wasn't exactly like my glory days on wheels. Rollerdance jam is a Thursday-night institution at CELL. The overhead lights shine low so as not to disturb the mood of mystery. Colored beams run from the ceiling to the floor, swinging madly in a beat-driven frenzy. Some people circle the perimeter. Others perform hip-hop line routines on skates in the center. Voyeurs hang in the peripheries, chilling out on couches or spectating a group of breakdancers on the front end of the floor.

"There are people around who've been doing this for 50 years," says Carol Sloan, rollerdance jam location coordinator and manager of 25-year-old Skates on Haight. Sloan and numerous others gather each week to practice choreography, some of which has a long history on the roads and in the rinks.

Keep on Skatin'

Rollerdance is a very American phenomenon that began in skating rinks across the country. It was passed down through generations by mentors in the rinks. Preteens would find someone who practiced a style of rollerdance they admired, resolutely push these skaters to teach them the steps and then pass along those steps to younger skaters once they'd mastered them. Though the phenomenon was more common in African American communities, San Francisco was the first place to have more white than black participants.

But had it not been for one man, rollerdance might have faded into the forgotten relics of American pop culture along with the rinks and drive-in theaters. Richard Humphrey, a Bay Area native, took the dance steps he learned in the rinks and used them with his three-man '70s performance group, the Golden Rollers. The group was known for its long choreography, unusual in most rollerdance groups. At the height of the group's success, the Golden Rollers performed in a concert for several thousand audience members.

Humphrey continued to work with roller enthusiasts as well as a number of other dance-related events. Some of his other accomplishments include performing for the San Francisco Ballet, Phyllis Diller and Olympic gold-medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, creating a TV pilot called Dancing Wheels in the late '70s and doing a half-time show for the Oakland Skates hockey team. But Humphrey, refusing to bask in the roller-fame light, decided to introduce other rink-deprived individuals to the sport. He began teaching rollerdance classes independently as well as at UCSF, Third Wave Dance Studio and health expos. In 1996, Humphrey produced the first of his series of instruction videos teaching the basic steps to rollerdance.

Rollerdance has long been relegated to places like Central Park in New York City, the Strand in Venice Beach and, in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park. Besides the park, studios and rinks outside the city, most rollerdancers had no place to go until Sloan and other rollerdancers decided to look for an alternate practice space last year. Fate intervened in the form of a phone call from Jonathan Youte of CELL. The art-education cooperative wanted to host a roller-skate party and needed Skates on Haight's help. The first two parties were the rollerdancers' entree to getting one night a week dedicated to rollerdance for themselves and an interested public.


Where to rollerdance in SF.


Beginner's Luck

The dancing aspect of rollerdance jam may appear daunting to many people who haven't tuned in to Humphrey's classes or been on wheels since the '70s, but most participants welcome newcomers freely. In fact, with the presence of Humphrey and other rollerdance jammers who love to teach their moves, newcomers can expect to get help with initiation problems ranging from staying balanced to skating backward to learning steps to the choreographed routines that others are doing.

And passionate rollers shouldn't be discouraged if their skates stayed behind when they moved to the city--rollerdance jam accommodates everyone. Sloan regularly has an assortment of roller-skates on hand for those who don't have them.

While rollerdancers are glad to have the CELL space available to them on Thursdays, the group hopes to expand its practice location options as well. Sloan explained that there are three or four community groups working to get another community recreation center like CELL added to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

"We'd love it if Cala moved out so they could tear down that building and put in a yoga, tai-chi, multipurpose center with a large wooden floor for skaters and classes for the community," Sloan says.

Besides the dreams of the group, Sloan speaks out in favor of the physical and mental strength that rollerdance builds. "Why should people skate?" she asks. "Because if you can dance on skates, you can skate anywhere and, with that strength, you can better deal with a number of things."

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From the May 10, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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