Then at another moment, with equal joy, Gee, who is known as Mr. Energy, collects a line to practice another shuffling kind of style known as the slow walk. “Come on, Mr. Energy. Kill 'em!” the hype man, Will, would boom from the mic when Gee was on the floor. And then again, a few moments later, Gee might be out, going fast, bopping the step that gives Baltimore its name: Snap City. Snapping is a general term used to describe the style of skating, which originated in Baltimore and is often marked by a quick one-footed turn, where the skater does a 180-degree slide and then moves back.
Then Exquisite, a 22-year-old who has been skating since childhood, walks in. She used to skate at Orchard Skateland in Towson, which recently closed. “You don’t understand, yo, that was our home,” she says. "We honed our craft there and developed relationships that are key to our lives as roller skaters and people, we gotta get it back!”
When she walks into Shake & Bake, Gee's eyes light up. He rolls up and greets her with a hug, welcoming her to the rink. She is amped and positively charged. Her eyes are big and clear, and she is smiling. Like CeCee she also draws a lot of love, greeting and talking to lots of people before lacing up. The lights reflect upon her beautiful brown skin, as if they are honoring her royal presence. She has found a new home.
And when Exquisite steps onto the wood, she inspires the younger skaters, and the floor takes on a slightly different edge. She is a snapping phenomenon. Built like a dancer, she looks like an Olympic speed skater in athletic tights and duct-taped skates as she builds momentum and moves around the rink.
But the tempo of the whole night is driven by the DJ, who stands off to the side. You can see the pace and mood change with the song. As a train whistle mixes in under a soul song, everyone seems to burst into hyperspace. It is the crux of the entire shit. “That music gets into your spirit and you just start to float,” says a young man from Baltimore who goes by Que.
“You gotta feel them man, you gotta reach out and grab them," says J.B., Shake & Bake's resident DJ."They’ll let you know if they like it or not, and if they don’t, you’d be smart not to go in that direction again.”
Stormin' Norman is the DJ at Skating Palace, where he's worked for over 10 years. "Stormin' be having them bamas out Skating Palace rolling so fast, they be ready to fly the fuck off the floor,” says Daryl Burke, a 45-year-old skater from Clinton, Maryland. Whatever the rink, the music sets the pace and lays down the rhythmic blueprint for the creativity of the skaters—without it, there is no skate night. When Barry White's 'It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me,' or Bill Withers' 'Aint No Sunshine' are remixed, so that the bass is enhanced and the track slowed down, the skaters collectively mirror the groove—from footwork to hand and facial expressions, it is a dance on wheels that purges the fire of the day-to-day grind and allows each skater to join in a congregational soul procession.
That sense of procession is never more evident than when CeCee comes dipping and cutting smoothly through the sea of skaters, conducting the skate train. His call, "YAH YAH YAH, FIRE IN THE HOLE!” is the cue for skaters on the outer edge either to join in or make way and yield. Folks enjoy skating with him because of his consistent rhythmic stride. If the DJ provides the drum, CeCee is the bottom, the bass that they can depend on to keep a steady groove.
It was frightening when I first encountered CeCee and his crew coming up behind me. I was just rolling along, trying not to bust my ass, and struggling to find the rhythm, when all of a sudden I hear “Fire in the hole!” That shit came up behind me from nowhere and really fucked me up. I skated off the rink and stayed on the perimeter for the rest of the night, watching. Soon, I began to notice a language, an unspoken sense of communication. It reminded me of my time spent in Port-au-Prince, attempting to navigate my way through Carnival. It was exciting and frustrating, watching the skaters from outside the rink because I wanted to get involved at that level so bad, but I knew that I would have to put in the time and be humble—I'd have to learn from them in order to skate with them. So, every Saturday, I’m at Shake & Bake at 11 a.m. for my weekly skate lesson with Woody Rhodes and his assistant coach Debbie Brown.
In May, the first time I showed up with skates, I was falling all over the rink and soaking the floor with sweat, and Brown kept singing "we fall down but we get up," and encouraging me. “Come on Tony Tone, you gonna get it,” she said. I was like, “Mannnn, this here, is some tricky ass shit!” and couldn’t wait to finish the lesson and get out of those skates. But Will Patton, the hype man, came up to me before I left and said, “Man, you look good on those skates, for this to be your first time. You gonna get it in no time, Tone, just keep coming back.” That meant a lot to me, and kept me coming back.
The community at Shake & Bake was shaken to the core on June 10, when Patton died unexpectedly.
The next Thursday, people were wearing shirts with a picture of him on the front and “Come on Thursday Nighters” on the back. Something about the welcoming warmth of his spirit, as he gave shout-outs that served as a segue for the music, helped nurture my confidence. The community and individuality that define skating in Baltimore were evident in Patton. I especially loved when he would call individuals by name to big them up. He always followed up his shout-outs with “Kill 'em!” Now, I can’t help but to stare up at his old mic stand like it is a memorial to his positivity.
But the wheels keep rolling and the skaters still come out and groove—celebrating the rhythm of life. As long as you've got the $6 entry fee (and sometimes even if you don't), the mundane concerns of the outside world don’t matter under those flashing disco lights. If you can skate, the only thing that matters is hitting that wood, and if you can't—well, according to Will, “All you gotta do is keep coming back and you’ll get it.”
With additional reporting by Baynard Woods