Rollerskating Lives D.C.'s style skating scene may be graying, but it's still rolling.

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Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

On a plastic bench near the snack bar, Big Willis laces up his skates. It’s around midnight, a few hours before the competition begins. Slow jams pour from the DJ booth. Competitors practice their spins, drops, and dips in the center of the floor as hundreds of other skaters revolve around them.

Wearing a sly smile and graying goatee, Big Willis rolls onto the smooth wooden floor. He’s decked out in a long-sleeve, button-down black shirt and a porkpie hat, the uniform of his Master Rollers skate club. On the rink, he glides along backwards to greet friends, cruising through a crowd of competitors young enough to be his children or grandchildren.

Big Willis—aka Willis Epps Sr.—is 60 years old and stands 5-foot-4. His nickname, which is familiar to just about everyone in the crowd crammed into Baltimore’s Shake N Bake roller rink, serves mainly to distinguish him from his 40-year-old son, Willis Epps Jr. As it happens, Lil’ Willis stands 5-foot-5. He’s here, too, clad in a button-down white shirt emblazoned with the logo of his Midnight Rollers, a train with the face of a clock.

In a few hours, father and son, the leaders of two of D.C.’s greatest skating squads, will take the floor in Kollage Entertainment’s Total Trick Explosion Competition, in the dual trick and trios categories, respectively.

For now, though, the scene is more like a cross between a roller-rink birthday party and a dance club. Skaters zoom around the perimeter, with knees, hips and shoulders moving to the thumping bass line. Groups link hands, moving as a single train—maintaining their straight lines even when the first skater in line drops into a tuck, or lifts a leg out in front and kicks it in and out to the beat. Couples skate side by side in lockstep, breaking apart only to throw in ballroom dance moves.


Tonight’s crowd includes about a dozen D.C.-area skate clubs, which are like fraternities or sororities on wheels. The women of Butterflys-N-Unity don pleated red-plaid skirts, white tank tops, and red neckties. M.A.D. Unity is rolling with simple white shirts and black pants.

Events like tonight’s used to be a lot more common. Style skating, an athletic, fluid mash-up of roller-skating and dancing, was born at segregation-era skate nights in black communities throughout the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But D.C.’s biggest rinks closed in the 1980s. Today, skaters like Big Willis are apt to drive longer and longer distances to show their stuff. And the first generation of style skaters is dying out, taking a piece of African-American cultural history with them.

Epps says part of his life’s work is to pass along his legacy to younger generations. But only part. First, he has a competition to win. And as things get going, he pronounces himself confident. He’s got a move the young bucks won’t be able to touch. “Mostly,” he says, “they know me for the split.”

Big Willis moved to Washington in 1968, at age 17. Before that, he says, he’d never seen roller skates before. Epps had been raised, mostly by his grandmother, in Garysburg, N.C. Money was tight; Epps picked cotton for 15 cents an hour. He left home at age 14, picking tobacco on a farm in exchange for some spending money and a shed to sleep in.

In D.C., something clicked when a cousin took Big Willis to the old National Arena Roller Rink, on Kalorama Road NW—known simply as Kalorama. After a few clumsy revolutions, he recalls, he thought: “I’m going to get good at this.” He started skating, once a day, twice on weekends, basically any time he wasn’t working as a dishwasher or cook’s helper, his first jobs when he moved to the District.

Within three months, Big Willis could hang with the fastest skaters in the rink. He became a floor guard, a cross between lifeguard and bouncer, at the sprawling Alexandria Arena, which could fit 3,000 people. Among them was Lil’ Willis’ mother, Claudell Epps, who Big Willis first met skating. By the time Lil’ Willis was two, mom and dad had him on skates as well.

Alexandria was knocked down in 1987; a hotel now stands in its place, at the corner of Madison and N. St. Asaph streets. Kalorama, thanks to its historic art-deco façade, was luckier: The building, if not the skating, was preserved. Today, the structure holds a Harris Teeter grocery store that serves a gentrified swath of Adams Morgan.

Big Willis and Claudell Epps split up when Lil’ Willis was young. The senior Epps, who owns and operates Epps Fleet Automotive, a mobile-mechanic service, now has nine children from five mothers, he says. But while his family life has sometimes been tumultuous, skating has been a constant. He’s won so many skating trophies over the past 43 years that he no longer keeps track of what the awards stashed on a coffee table in the back of his living room are all for.

Photos: Style Skating

Photos: Historical Style Skating

Our Readers Say

Hey guys...there's skating at Anacostia Park its a free outdoor rink, and during the summer a DJ, and the Anacostia Rollers skate there. Also there a skate show on the 26th of June...Be There
Thanks so much for this article. I moved here 30 years ago and never knew where to roller skate. It's great exercise to stay in shape for social ballroom dancing. See you soon!
Thank you for writing this article. It was well written and truly highlights their Love and Passion for roller skating.
skateboardings better
This story was well told. Roller Skating is one of the Best ways to RELAX. Once you get in that "ZONE" you can't stop. Ask a true Skater. 4hout-out to my Big Brother Wee aka Lil Willis Epps, Jr
Its nice that this story was told. I remember in the late 80's when radio station WYCB use to host its Monday Night Gospel Skate at Crystals known as Skate Palace now. Hello to the "Holy Rollers". Lets get together soon and SKATE. Peace
This story is great! It has brought back so many memories of growing up in the Washington Metro area. I use to skate at Kalorama Road in the 60's! I'm sure I was there with Mr. Willis and I think that it is wonderful that he still has not only the skill but the love for skating. I am the author of "we're in it for life" a book about growing up in the D.C. area; and my sequeal would not be complete without mentioning this great part of my life at Kalaram road skating rink!! Great story!!
This story features my father Willis and my Big Brother, Lil Willis. I am so proud to be an EPPS and be part of the Legacy of style skating. I may not be as good as the two of them, but my goal is to get there! Much love to my blood fam and skate fam! <3 Amy Epps, Master Roller's "First Daughter"
Proud to be a member of the Epps family. My dad is a living legend!
I loved, absolutely loved, reading about this piece of black history, our history. I skate every chance I get and I've seen all of the individuals mentioned in the article do their thing. I'm proud of each and every one of them, and just like them all, I will continue to skate until I can't skate anymore. In fact, if it takes me to skate with a walker, I will do my best to keep rollin'. (smile)
Darrow - the slide show is incredible. Some of those could be award winning. Awesome and good work!
What an awesome article! The pictures really capture the visions that really go through my mind.
This was one of the best articles you've ever run. Very well-done writing and pictures! I really enjoyed learning about this rich piece of African American history. Great job, the moves, the passion, the dedication and the TALENT all came through very well!
I read the above artical, there was an artical in the post in 2006
of a lady,who do skating show in Anacostia Park that I found better,
Congra! to Big Jim Allen on his tropies,who roll indoor with the
Master Rollers, but he will always be a Anacostia Roller to me.
Special Props to Big Jim, see you in the show in Anacostia Park
on June 26th.
This is a very good article on roller skating, I remember going to Kalorama to skate when I was a kid. Loved the organ playing on trios!
All I have to say there's isn't a skating ring like Kalorama. I use to hit the spot up like 3 to 4 nights a week. PEOPLE...... where is a good local spot to go to?
Nice reading, Its nice to remember those days in the 70's skating at Kalorama three to four days a week. The article could have named some of the original groups like the Viking Wheelers, the Supreme Wheelers or my favorite Rolling Thunder. Of course thats because I was one of them. I cant talk about those days and give the true experience you got at Kalorama from watching the trios or couples skating to the organ with Vance singing or from skating on them.
Great article, lil Willis I love you man. Keep skating bro. I may not do it like I used to, but I still get it in when I can,,,,JB
This is a terrific article!

This is Rick, l need Epps number, we rollerskat. Together, but i drive dump trucks,an he doesrepairs, my boss wants his service, , he was supposed. To gave me. His card Thursday, but left befor me. 202-367-5962 this is my number u can give it to him, tell. Him Rick that worked for Dockett, that skates with him

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