Wheeling Along

I was skating on inlines in the park for exercise, when a derby girl gave me a shout-out,” explains former roller derby skater Beth Aguillard.

Rollerskating these days is a little different from the familiar sport that included a clunky key on a string around one’s neck and the metal grippers that put wheels under the feet of generations of children. Thousands of those children in New Orleans would have received skates at the Doll and Toy Fund gift distribution at holiday time, and the buzzing of wheels as groups of kids ranged the neighborhoods is a holiday memory of many New Orleanians.

As Aguillard, who became a member of the Big Easy Rollergirls, was to learn, skating isn’t just good exercise; roller derby is a competitive sport. And it uses quad skates (four-wheels).

“There are lots of rules, and it’s very complicated,” Aguillard says. “You aren’t just going out there and knocking people over; you’re blocking people for strategy to try to win the bout. You can’t just stick your foot out and trip people – you’d get penalized.”

Besides learning all the rules, Aguillard had to come up with a name for herself – a traditional in-your-face derby name. She decided on “Ammeaux Bang Bang, with jersey ‘number’ AK47.”

The derby girls run their own team, volunteer to sell tickets to bouts, participate in charitable activities and civic events (including the popular “Running of the Bulls” every July during the annual San Fermin in Nueva Orleans festival), and they compete with other teams in the state and the region.

Roller derby may be recently popular here, but skating has been around New Orleans for a long time. Although four-wheeled skates were only invented in 1863, six years later the Crescent City was on a roll.

New Orleanians celebrated All Saints Day in 1869 by whirling around a rollerskating rink at Mechanics Hall, located on what is now the site of The Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel, Elks Place side. The Picayune of Nov. 2, 1869, reported “any number of skaters on the floor, among whom were some 15 or 20 ladies.” Four-thousand invitations to the event were sent to “the best families in the city.”

A local rollerskating rink was also the site of a tragedy in August 1906, according to a clipping in the files of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane.

There was a rink for blacks at Lincoln Park on Carrollton Avenue, near where the Daughters of Charity Medical Center is today. Mattie Morris, a young woman who lived at Perrier and Dufossat streets, was “looked upon as one of the best skaters in the place,” and on the crowded rink she collided with a male skater who was “doing fancy stunts.” As the report noted, “the girl struck her head in falling, breaking her neck.” Fortunately such accidents are uncommon on today’s roller rink floors.

Many adult New Orleanians can remember skating rink birthday parties. One long-ago favorite was Phil’s Big Eight Wheels, on Jefferson Highway at Causeway Boulevard, with its wooden floor. Pom-poms for the birthday child’s skates, lots of skating games and races and a partner skate for the finale: that was the usual birthday schedule.

Bob Jean, of Airline Skate Center in Metairie, has been in the roller rink business for 42 years. One of the biggest changes, he notes, is the music selection. “When I started, it was organ music. Now it’s all iPods and computer music – rock, pop and hip-hop.”
Floors are no longer wood, but concrete, with an epoxy plaster on top. “You get flooded, you suck up that water and you’re back in business,” he says. Airline Skate Center reopened in December after Hurricane Katrina.

He still hosts birthday parties – up to 40 a week. He also does charity events. (The group’s volunteers sell tickets and keep a percentage.) School groups and day-campers are regular customers. They still have locking skate wheels for toddlers, and there are even walker skates now.

Saturday nights at Airline Skate Center are for young people. “They’re too young to get in the clubs,” Jean explains. Music
is all-important – in fact, “at the end, we always dance for 20 or 30 minutes.”

Roller rinks are also part of the music scene. Melissa Weber, a regular host on WWOZ-FM known as DJ Soul Sister, is such a fan of disco music and skating that she has celebrated her birthday with a skating party for charity. “I get a DJ for it, because I want to skate the whole time,” she says. “He does it on vinyl, the original disco roller skating way.”

DJ Big Bob Lopez, profiled at RollerSkatingToday.com, grew up in New Orleans and is known for music spinning at roller rinks on the West Coast.

Why work at rinks? “When you’re at a club, it’s almost like you’re playing snippets of songs. When you’re skating, people really don’t want you to cut the song.”

Rollerskating is clearly enduring through the ages. It is good exercise, it’s fun and the whole family can participate.

As Aguillard explains, “Skating is like … freeing. The speed, the wind it creates –it’s a little like play. And that’s good.”

Wheeling Along

Reeling and Rolling: Skating Movies

Enjoy vicarious thrills on wheels with these DVD delights:

Whip It, 2009: Drew Barrymore directed and starred in a roller derby movie (with more violence than current derby seems to include).

Roll Bounce, 2005: Bow Wow is one of the music stars in this energetic tale of disco-era rinks (with period music – plus modern takes on disco). Ten percent of opening-day receipts went to Hurricane Katrina charities.

Xanadu, 1980: Olivia Newton John is a roller skating muse who inspires a disco roller rink – with help from Gene Kelly. Remade as a Broadway musical.

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