Motown + Roller Skating = Detroit Style

7 / 1 / 2022

In 1959, Berry Gordy Jr. took the $800 loan his family had given him and started one of the most prolific record studios the world has ever known. Motown was more than just a record company pushing out radio ballads and dance hall hits. Motown was a dream-making machine that turned the city of Detroit into the music capital of the world at an extremely integral moment in American history. The influence that Motown has had on the music industry is still widely apparent today.

What may not be so apparent is Motown’s direct and integral influence on the roller skate culture of Detroit.

Roller skating was more than a pastime for Black individuals growing up during the civil rights movement of the 1950’s. In fact, roller skating became a form of self expression for those seeking an outlet from the discrimination that presented itself in dance clubs and community centers across America. At the turn of the 1950’s, roller rinks and dance halls across the country were closed to Black individuals, save for one night a week referred to as “Black Night”. This term was later changed to “Soul Night” as the civil rights movement began picking up steam, but all the trappings of segregation were still very much present. Racism by any other name…

This inability to enjoy skating at an indoor rink any night of the week meant that the streets, playgrounds, and beaches near the Black neighborhoods of bigger cities saw a lot more four-wheeled-feet skating around than other areas. Taking to the streets helped to weave roller skating into the fabric of the Black community more and more. It allowed Black individuals to come together any day of the week to skate. They could dress however they wanted and listen to whatever they wanted to while skating with their friends and neighbors without the discriminatory policies of the rinks.

As Motown began to take over the radio in the early part of the 1960’s, there were a few rinks in Detroit, such as the dance-hall-turned-roller-rink, Arcadia Ballroom, that hosted roller skating “Soul Nights” with live concerts featuring the fledgling talent of Motown’s rising stars. Arcadia and roller rinks like it had always been the place to go to show off all the moves you had been practicing for weeks on end. The rink was like a circus packed with talented performers. These roller rink trailblazers would keep crowds coming back simply to watch what they had been cooking up. Now, with the addition of live music by performers the likes of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and The Supremes taking the stage… These rinks became a place of magic.

Skaters would skate to the beat of the music and the musicians would feed off the energy of the kinetic crowd, both slowly working together to create their own show for the spectators who chose to sit on the sidelines with both feet on the floor. Then, while listening to records by these musicians at home, the skaters would mimic the synchronized dances that they had seen the musicians and their backup singers perform in time with one another. These dance moves would require partners or groups of people to skate together, mirroring each other’s movements while holding hands and working together to stay in constant motion.

These moves would then be shared amongst the skaters once a week on "Soul Night" in rinks across Detroit while they were introduced to The Jackson 5 and Gladys Knight and The Pips. However, the style of skating that Detroit has become known for would not have come to be if things would have remained as they were. Being able to share moves one night a week would not be enough to create a “style” of skating. The extremely technical moves that make up “Detroit Style” skating would have eventually been lost to time if people weren’t allowed to practice them together any night of the week inside of roller rinks concerned with keeping segregation alive.

Thankfully, around the same time that all this was going on, Johnnie and Leroy Folks, a Black couple raising their family in Michigan, built the first Black-owned roller rink in Detroit… Rollercade. The founders of this new rink on the outskirts of Detroit did away with “Soul Night” and opened their doors to anyone who wanted to skate any day of the week.

This gave Black skaters the opportunity to continue innovating and developing the building blocks of what would soon become known the world over as “Detroit Style” skating. A style that continues to evolve from playful dance moves on roller skates, into something that, at times, resembles Olympic Figure Skating. It’s more a sport than a pastime for some. A sport that does not care about societal gender norms. It doesn’t discriminate against age or body type. It was born out of segregation but continues to bring people together year after year, even during a pandemic that forced people to get out of the rinks and back into the streets if they wanted to skate.

“Detroit Style” skating is here to stay and will remain an important piece of the American story. Just like the music of Motown that helped shape it and us.