Trains of skaters up to 10 deep are ripping around the rink. People are doing a little dip known as the “Baltimore Bounce,” snapping half turns in double and triple time, skating backward, kicking their legs out, both controlled and supremely relaxed as they groove to the music. The lights inside the Shake & Bake Family Fun Center are low except for the starlike strobes that splash the skaters with celestial rain, like the street lights outside reflecting on the passersby strolling up and down Baltimore’s historic but disheveled Pennsylvania Avenue.

When CeCee Cureton, the president of The Low Riderz, Baltimore's most popular skate crew, bops into Shake & Bake—the complex also includes a bowling alley and ballroom—around 10:30, the entire place changes and turns up like a big bitch. Even the rollers on the floor greet him with his signature chant: “YAH YAH YAH!”

CeCee, who has been skating for nearly 45 years, greets everyone he passes, pausing for a few words, a fist pound, or a kiss on the cheek. He and his wife Donna are known as the president and first lady of the rink and are recognized wherever they go, from Atlanta to Detroit. Geared up with his signature headband, wristbands, a Low Riderz shirt, ankle weights, and black skates with the shearling tongue folded over, CeCee embodies the sense of fun, style, and community that defines the world of Baltimore’s skate crews.

These crews are a colorful and lively reflection of the spirit and soul of African-American culture in the DMV. The Low Riderz, The Soul Rollerz, The Pixies, The Wolf Pack, The Dream Team, and Organized Chaos are just a few of the sets within this subculture. Roller-skating crews are extended family constructs with their own customs and rituals. Some crews are small. Generation 3 consists solely of Ethel "Peaches" Cooper, her daughter, and her three grandchildren. But others, such as CeCee’s Low Riderz are highly organized. There are dozens of pictures of CeCee on his Facebook page in other cities, decked out in Low Riderz gear—hats and shirts that read “Yah Yah Yah Fire in the Hooooole”—making the thumb and index finger of one hand into an “L.” Though they are generally friendly and welcoming, membership in a skate crew is serious and there is always a careful discussion before a new member is actually allowed to join a crew like the Low Riderz, which CeCee founded in 2008.

“My purpose for starting the club was to bring together people who have a love of skating and a genuine concern for the greater Baltimore community outside of Shake & Bake," he says. "The Low Riderz have been partnering with Shake & Bake and providing those in need with the comforts that are necessary for sustaining life. For example, we hosted a complimentary Thanksgiving dinner at the rink, where all are invited, for the last two years, and have held a toy drive for children." He pauses and adds, "Man, it’s more than skating, it’s about people!”

Donna Cureton, who married CeCee last August, refers to her husband as a peacemaker and a support for many people in the skate community."If there's a fight outside, they call him to break it up," she says. She points to the rink. “We met right out there and had our reception in the [Shake & Bake's] Billie Holiday Room, and then had a skate party. That’s how much skating means to us!”

The couple is hosting another party,"Old School Meets New School," at Shake & Bake on July 12. “Doesn’t matter who you are, we’re all family when we come in here,” Donna says of the nonjudgmental vibe of the place, where men roll around the rink holding hands, helping each other go faster, or practicing new tricks, unembarrassed, in a way that is otherwise uncommon in the black community. The roller rink is a stage and each crew and person plays a part in ushering the atmosphere of rhythmic wonder, guided by footwork, balance, and artistic dexterity.

There is a rich history of skating in Baltimore and many of the Thursday Nighters have been honing their craft since the 1950s. Fred Singletary, who sells and repairs skates inside the rink, can recall the fun that used to be had at The Coliseum, which was where African Americans in Baltimore skated in the '50s and '60s. “Man, we had some good times back then," he says. "Because that was all we had. Wasn’t like today, we didn’t have a whole lot of choices."

As Brian Washington sits at a table off to the side of the rink, taking off his skates, he recalls the late 1970s, when his brother owned a club called Disco Skate. "It was cool," he says. "We had disco strobes, we had sirens. We'd skate and then dance at the end. And then we went to Rhythm Skate, a larger arena with live entertainment. We had Janet Jackson, New Edition, and even Kurtis Blow."

Former Baltimore Colt Glenn Doughty opened Shake & Bake in 1982 and many of the skaters here on a Thursday night have been coming ever since. Old heads like Scotty, Mr. B—who is the great nephew of Harriet Tubman and the cousin of Parliament Funkadelic's Bootsy Collins—Debbie, and Woody have well over 75 years skating experience among them. And, in a rink where there are high speeds and little room for mistakes, they're always ready to help less experienced skaters, looking at the activity as a positive force. 

"This skating rink saves and restores lives," Anthony Williams, the current owner, says. And Shake & Bake isn't the only one. While skating rinks in white areas are struggling to keep their doors open, black folks are rolling and hitting the wood hard as a muthafucka in the hood. People from all walks of life come to get their roll on. Nikki, a 38-year-old single mother of two and registered nurse of 16 years in Washington, D.C., describes the euphoria of Thursday nights at Temple Hills Skating Palace: “You either go hard or go home.”

Nikki is the president of the Soul Rollerz, a crew that calls Skating Palace home. The group is made up of five women and three men, most of whom are in their mid-30s to early 40s. Clad in a light blue T-shirt with SOUL ROLLERZ printed in black bold letters along with her name, Nikki accentuates her hips in her black tights as she skates in a slow, dragging kind of backward glide, past the onlookers crowded around the perimeter of the rink. Her hair, natural and locked, is pulled back with a light-blue and black matching bandana, and she looks absolutely regal as she rhythmically sways, seductive and feather-light, through the speed demons on a Thursday night.

“These fools going to kill themselves out here," she says. "It’s so not about going fast, man. It’s about control and sex appeal baby, but they’ll learn.” And then she does little sexy rollbacks on her skate, exaggerates a snakelike sway with her curvaceous hips, and snaps her fingers and sighs, “Owwww!”

 

Within all African-inspired subcultures there are unwritten codes. Since the days of slavery, African-Americans have survived and identified themselves within particular groupings with verbal cues and body language foreign to the uninitiated.

I'd been studying the ways that these subcultures are indebted to the West African sense of rhythmic expression found within the Yoruba and Igbo people of Nigeria for decades before I discovered skating a few months ago. I was at Maceo’s Lounge on Monroe Street in West Baltimore, when a woman noticed me taking pictures. After I explained that I was photographing hand dancing—a variant of swing dancing—in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in order to compare it with other forms of dance found within African cultures throughout the Americas, she asked if I had ever shot roller skating. "No, why?" I said dismissively. About a week later, I was photographing at the Chateau nightclub and another woman made the same exact suggestion. She insisted I go to Temple Hills Skating Palace in Prince George's County on a Thursday night. I went the next week. When I saw the intensity on the rink, I was blown away. When I went to Shake & Bake and found the same funk happening there, I knew I had to turn my lens loose on it.

After a couple of weeks of documenting the scene, I purchased skates and began to learn. At first I was a nervous wreck and felt extremely uncomfortable on wheels. But the skate community almost immediately gathered around me and gave me support. The warmth and welcome, as well as the pulse of the rhythm, had me hooked. And now I skate at least three times a week, every week, hooked on the feeling of being in the powerful and constant tide of people, moving together to a groove and floating on air. It reminds me of the Apostolic church here in Baltimore when that organ starts pumping along with the drums, choir, and call-and-response congregation on Sunday morning. 

While much of the appeal of the rink is communal, there is also an intense sense of individuality. A tall woman in a headband swerves in and out of traffic, backward, forward, lost in her own rhythm. A middle-aged bald man hangs as close to the walls on the out edge of the rink as possible, an expression of joy animating his face as he zooms around. Another man stands almost still in the center of the floor, practicing a style of skating that can only be described as minimalism. He is an old head who has been skating for a long time and he has narrowed his moves in a Zen-like way so that now he hardly needs to move at all, confining his motion to a space the size of a manhole cover. A few small motions—a quick little shuffle to the left, or the lifting of one foot off the ground and holding it aloft—display more skill than most of the kids ducking low or riding backwards.

Woody Rhodes, who wears a referee's shirt and is referred to as "coach," is the ever-observant skate guard. He has more than 40 years of skating experience and has been teaching for more than 20. “It’s about control and finesse,” he says of his craft. And at 62 years old, he makes skating look effortless, stressing technique and discipline in order to gain confidence and a feeling of “being one with your skates.”

All of these individual styles have developed out of the styles of different cities blended together. Arsenio Gee, a young man with a beard, a bald head, a black Shake & Bake shirt, and thick-framed black glasses is practicing some fancy footwork known as JB-ing, or James Browning, near the center of the rink. And as he kicks one leg out and lowers his torso, only to spring back up and land on his toes, Gee looks like the Godfather of Soul.

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