How New York got a glorious throwback roller-skating extravaganza

To some people, a roller rink is just a place to skim around in a circle, not even very fast, going nowhere. But to its devotees and to the creators of DiscOasis, a new skate experience in Central Park, it is transformational, spiritual - time travel on four wheels.

On Saturday night, more than 1,000 skaters packed Wollman Rink, laced up their quads and spun off into sparkling nostalgia. Spotlights shone onto the surrounding trees, as a concert-level light show bathed the space in cyan, fuschias and golds. Good Times, that 1970s party staple, blared from DJ Funkmaster Flex's booth, as the crowd - some wobblies, some more expert - parted for the pros: One roller dancer in flared jeans dropped to a split, while another flipped off her wheels, uncoiling into a headstand. For 10 minutes, it was all hot pants and acrobatics, and then regular New Yorkers - many with a style not far-off - slid back in.

Hovering over this opening night like a sequined demigod was Nile Rodgers, the Chic guitarist, funk-disco eminence and lifelong skater. He curated music for DiscOasis, and, with voice-over introductions, provides its cultural throughline from 1970s and '80s New York, when he used to frequent the city's now shuttered, once legendary rinks with Diana Ross and Cher. Kevin Bacon and Robert Downey Jr, too. (The '80s were wild.) With some skill on wheels, "You feel like you have special human powers," Rodgers said in a recent video interview. "You feel like you can fly."

Roller skating is having another flash of popularity, but DiscOasis sets itself apart from the city's other rinks and pop-up events (Rockefeller Center is temporarily hosting wheelers, too) through its production value, theatricality and pedigree. There's blossoming disco balls as big as 8 feet in diameter, and a multitiered stage, created by Tony-nominated set designer David Korins, who did Hamilton and shows for Lady Gaga. The cast of 13 includes legends of New York roller disco, like the long-limbed skater known as Cotto, a fixture in the city's parks for more than four decades, whose signature leg twirls and pivots have influenced scores of skaters.

"We call it jam skating," he said. DiscOasis coaxed him out of retirement - he's had both hips replaced - for choreographed shows, five nights a week.

The energy is ecstatic, and infectious. "Being on wheels is paradise to me," said Robin Mayers Anselm, 59, who grew up going to Empire Skate, the storied Brooklyn emporium. "I feel more connected to myself and my spirit when I skate."

That's true even for the newbies, like Robin L Dimension, an actress wearing an embellished jumpsuit and a chunky Queen necklace with her psychedelic-patterned skates. "I got a really nice outfit," she said, "so I look good going down."

Billed as "an immersive musical and theatrical experience," DiscOasis began last year outside of Los Angeles, the pandemic brainchild of an events company led by an agent with Creative Artists Agency. But its foundational home was always New York, and it will be open daily through October.

"For us, DiscOasis is a movement, it's a vibe - we want as many people to be able to experience it," said Thao Nguyen, its executive producer, and CEO of Constellation Immersive, its parent company, which partnered with Live Nation and Los Angeles Media Fund to stage the series.

Rodgers created the playlists for the performances, which happen throughout the night, interspersed with live DJs. (The daytime is for more relaxed skating.) A longtime New Yorker, Rodgers coined his skate style as a 12- or 13-year-old on a brief sojourn in Los Angeles, when he tore up the town with other kids, performing little routines. "I had this wobbly leg way of skating," he said. He still does, "even though I'm going to be 70. And it looks cool."

Even then, his crew stood out: "We used to skate to jazz," he said, recalling their grooves to guitarist Wes Montgomery's 1965 classic Bumpin' on Sunset.

Fast forward 30 years, and Rodgers had largely hung up his skates. But he has been so energized by his association with DiscOasis, which approached him for the Los Angeles event, that it reignited his devotion. Now on tour in Europe, he has been conjuring minirinks wherever he goes, one hotel ballroom at a time.

"They lift up the rugs for me and create a big dance floor," he said. "I can skate in a little square. There's nobody in there, because I skate at such weird hours - 4 or 5 in the morning." (He doesn't sleep much. As befits a disco-era fashion legend, he also has personalised skates - orange, green, iridescent - which got stuck in customs on their way to Europe. His favourites are a classic pair of black Riedells.)

Even for someone well-versed in skate culture, the Los Angeles version of DiscOasis offered some lessons. Most skaters only stick to the rink for about 45 minutes, Rodgers said. The space around Wollman has a non-skate dance floor and a few Instagram-ready installations inspired by his music. The giant half-disco ball stuffed with oversize wedding bouquets, pearls and askew mannequin legs, for example, is supposed to symbolise Madonna's Like a Virgin, which he produced.

For Korins, the production designer, the space is a Studio 54 throwback, but fresher. "We're leaning into this oasis idea - if you think about mirrored balls and foliage coming together to have a child, that's what we're making," he said. (Think discofied palm trees and cactuses.) And the Central Park location, with the Manhattan skyline rising above it, brings its own magic. "It takes all the best things about roller skating and disco and it literally rips the roof off," he said.

Like other skate habitués, Korins has a theory about why it remains addictive. "It's really hard to find an experience in life that's both kinetic and dynamic," he said - you can flex your solo style and also get the communion of "an organism moving around together." NYTimes


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