By Andy Behrens
Special to Page 3
It's a burning issue that needs to be settled: Is roller skating a sport?
On the set of "Roll Bounce," a new film from the producers of "Soul Food" and "Barbershop," there are dozens of the world's best roller skaters -- including the godfather of roller disco.
They're grooving to "Le Freak" by Chic. A young skater glides along the floor, stops suddenly and balances himself on one hand, his wheels frozen in midair. Another skater sticks a backflip. They're laughing like it's nothing. They're fluid, aggressive and hyper-athletic.
So is this a sport?
C'mon. If you're interested in esoteric sports debates, stop reading. Go vote in a web poll because a sport is the least of what roller skating is. It's a lifestyle. It's a culture.
And if it has the right deejay, it kicks ice skating's ass.
"It's another world," says Robert Teitel, one of the film's producers. "That's what makes it such a great subject for us."
The expert skaters dominate the set of "Roll Bounce," but rapper Bow Wow is the film's star. He's not Li'l Bow Wow anymore. He's just Bow Wow. Apparently, he noticed the dearth of adult stars named "Li'l" and acted accordingly.
Bow Wow is a source of startling optimism about virtually everything in his life. A couple of platinum records in your adolescence can do that. His next album? "We're gonna put the magic back together. Spark it for the fourth album. Light it up. Blow it up. It's gonna be huge." His beloved Atlanta Falcons? "We should definitely go to the playoffs this year. If everything goes right, and once we get that West Coast offense down, we're gonna be deadly in the NFC. Everybody's gonna step up. You know, we got DeAngelo Hall."
And his performance in "Roll Bounce"? "This movie's great, man. And once people see me play this role, I think that a lot of people are gonna be in awe, and they're definitely gonna be shocked."
Bow Wow plays a character from Chicago's South Side who's forced to take his roller skating uptown when the local rink closes. Up north, at the Sweetwater Rink, he encounters a fundamentally different Chicago. It's a diverse crowd listening to odd music. Naturally, he also finds rival skaters. A banner hanging above the rink foretells the film's climax: "SWEETWATER SKATE OFF, $500 Grand Prize!"
Between takes, Bow Wow is shuffling idly on his skates. It's 1978. Satin shirts, tube socks, voluminous afros, white belts with matching shoes, jumpsuits with metal snap-buttons, girls in sequins. And everywhere, the rubberized sound of skate wheels. Bow Wow is clearly comfortable.
"I'm from the Midwest. From Columbus, Ohio," he explains. "So every Saturday and Sunday me and all my friends, we would all gather up and just go up to the skating rink. So basically when I got here for the movie it was Bill Butler -- who's like a skating legend -- he just brought it back to life. It's kind of like a Frankenstein type of situation."
Bill Butler is the aforementioned godfather of roller disco. On the set, he's venerated. Butler is the film's primary skating instructor. He was also Olivia Newton-John's instructor for "Xanadu." If you're a 30-year-old woman, that probably makes him a god. But in truth, he's just a soft-spoken man who loves roller skating as much today as he did when he began doing it in the mid-1940s.
"Bill's a wonderful teacher," says Bow Wow. "I mean, he was doing this before me and you were born. Bill's like 70-something years old. The thing about it is, he looks like he's 40. Just the way he teaches. He goes all over the country and teaches his program. You know, Bill Butler, the whole skating thing."
Butler introduced his skating thing to the world in his 1979 book, "Jammin'." The technique detailed in the book is, essentially, the same approach that Butler has conveyed to the cast of "Roll Bounce."
"I would describe the Jammin' technique as a unique style," Butler says, sitting in a director's chair along the perimeter of the "Roll Bounce" rink. "I use this term: under your nose."
He points to his nose.
"It's just right under your nose, you know? It's right there. It's just that close. Because I designed it based on walking. One foot after the other. But many different ways. The stride, how you use the stride. Many different lengths. The physics of each one. The way that you can have your body deal with the rhythmic motion."
Butler protégé Mike Johnson, Bow Wow's principal skate double, says, "We're able to skate and communicate with each other through the hands, through the steps that we do. Left-right, left-right. We usually stay on steps. Left-right, left-right." Like it's language.
"Once we follow those rules, we can do a lot of different things and stay together. And it seems like it's a routine. But it's not -- it's all improvisation."
Bow Wow seems to have caught on sufficiently.
"Bow's cool," says Butler. "Young kid, ambitious. He understands the role that he plays. He understands what he's gotta do. And I think he's more grounded than most of these guys. 'Cause where they're trying to get, he's there already."
A young female extra walks by in '70s hot pants.
"Some serious distractions for him around here, you know? Serious distractions."
Butler didn't develop his skating technique for the lonely. He designed it for multiple skaters moving in sync. "Hey, I'm a dancer. I'm a guy that says, 'If I can't do it with a girl I'm not doin' it.' The rink wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for women." He adds, "This Jammin' technique, it's kinda like O-positive blood. It'll fit any style. I can skate any style."
What, you didn't know there were several styles of roller skating? Or maybe you thought there were only two: upright, and inch-around-the-rink-slowly-holding-the-handrail.
Well, no. It's not like that. Skating is all style. There's the Ohio bounce, the Detroit slide, Virginia style. In Chicago they skate JB style -- as in James Brown. JB skaters dominate the set of "Roll Bounce."
"It's a lot of fancy footwork and a lot of kickin'," says Redd, a JB skater from the South Side. "Crazy legs. Big wheels. JB is a lot of fancy stuff going on. A lotta kickin'. It's pretty cool. JB in Chicago is huge."
Redd pauses. "I represent for the JB. I'm JB all the way."
Redd also represents for female roller skaters. The 27-year-old is the only woman among the film's expert skaters. "I'm double for Khleo (Thomas) and I'm Bow Wow's stunt double.
"I had to jump over a car," she says casually.
"Yeah, I was actually on top of a four-inch ramp. I have to skate across the ramp and jump over the car. It went pretty well. I had a couple of runs here and there, couple of test runs. Had to get the butterflies out my stomach, you know. Then I went on, did it. Nailed it. It turned out pretty good."
Once more, just so we're clear: this is a sport. Not that we're even having that discussion.
Mainstream America might think of roller skating as a fringe thing, a '70s anachronism. It's something you did at fifth grade birthday parties. It's the bizarre affectation of the least-threatening street gang in "Warriors." It's a thing people did before rollerblades and skateboards came along. It's as hopelessly dated as "Match Game."
But it ain't like that. It's totally alive. It's alive in cities. It's alive in Chicago at the Glenwood Roller Rink. It's alive in Atlanta at the Labor Day Skate-A-Thon. And it's a little bit better than alive in Brooklyn, at the legendary Empire Roller Disco.
Ask 24-year-old skater Mahaujah Tucker to describe "adult night" at Empire, and he answers with just a noise: "Woooooooooo ..."
Then he recoils, like the images are just too much.
"It's a buncha great skaters skating to the music they love. If you're used to spinning twice, you'll do it six, seven times. It's like, at that moment, on that beat, you'll do things you haven't done."
"Roll Bounce," as fiction, is a thing of the '70s. But many of the film's skaters weren't yet born. They're young, impossibly talented, and stars of a sport consigned to aging ballrooms in urban neighborhoods.
Let Bow Wow tell it: "Skating rinks are usually in the urban community. I was watching a documentary on skating that we had to watch before we shot this movie, and they said when they shut down skating rinks, the crime rate goes up. So, hopefully, when these kids see this movie, they can get a positive message of hope and we can encourage kids to get back out and stay active, do something fun."
The required documentary was "8 Wheels And Some Soul Brotha Music," a film by Tyrone Dixon. "It's still a work in progress," Dixon says. "Because, uh ... I ran outta money."
Before the money ran out, Dixon crisscrossed much of the country documenting the kinetic, but scarcely publicized, roller skating scene in African-American communities. The experience made him a natural for "Roll Bounce." Dixon recruited all of the elite skaters working on the film.
"We have the best skaters in the country here," he says. "What I want is roller skaters to be recognized like skateboarders. Like at the X-Games. If there are 17-year-old kids getting million dollar contracts, Mahaujah should get one."
The godfather of roller disco doesn't really want to hear about the X-Games, though.
"Awww, this is a whole 'nother ballgame," Butler says. "There's a .22 and then there's a Magnum. Know what I mean? I see roller skating, particularly the style I teach, going very far after this film. Hopefully the powers that be recognize it and give skating the push that it needs. That it deserves. Anytime that it's put in that arena, so that it's put in the public eye, with all the necessary applications, it'll be the biggest -- and the baddest -- there's ever been."
Butler leans back, a disco ball reflecting blue and yellow light onto his face.
"I think we all have this innate ability to do something really great. I wanna make roller skating great. Man, the Olympics could use some of this. If I had a hundred skaters trained by me, I could put on the greatest show in any arena," he says.
"That's how sweet it is."
Andy Behrens is a freelance writer in Chicago.