Tasha says 22-year-old Norbert, whose skate name is “Smooth,” was hanging in the center of the rink, “surveying his kingdom,” when some friends introduced her to him.
“He didn’t even look down his nose at me,” says Tasha, who was 12 at the time. Tasha was invited to join the Wheels of Fortune at 14. She spent her 16th birthday crying because she couldn’t perfect a lift with him.
Tasha and Norbert, now 53, eventually mastered the lift, in which he holds her above his head with one hand. They went on to perform it at events such as the 1984 and 1985 Cherry Blossom Parades, the opening of the Old Post Office Pavilion in 1983, and even as extras in Roll Bounce, the 2005 style-skating movie starring Bow Wow. They married when Tasha was 21 and Norbert was 31. And like the Eppses, they had their daughter skating almost as soon as she could walk, hoping to pass on the family legacy to a new generation.
Did it take? Their daughter Nyasha went off to college in California with a pair of skates with her. But Tasha says she’s not sure how often they get used. “It’s something she can put away for a few years and come back to whenever she needs it,” Tasha says.
Old-timers like Big Willis will tell you that today’s roller-skating palaces are hardly worth the name. These days, D.C. style skaters flock to Seabrook Skating Center in Lanham or the Temple Hills Skating Palace on Branch Avenue in Temple Hills, where Willis, Lynette and Lil’ Willis often skate on Thursday nights. Each has roughly a third the old rinks’ capacity. There are no rinks left in the District.
“They’re like little matchboxes,” Big Willis says.
“Imagine taking ballroom dancers out of the ballroom, and putting them on a little square stage,” says Norbert Klusmann. “There was a grandeur to those old rinks, and when they closed, that got lost.”
That history—the kind that’s lost to much of the world, as well as the part of it that has defined Klusmann’s life—is in fact the story of recent African-American history. Take all those distant cities the Master Rollers bus has cruised to over the years: There’s a different skate culture in each of them, one that springs from chunks of history that might be familiar to people who have no idea what a dual-trick competition is.
Roller skating has been around for more than a century, starting with affluent, white crowds waltzing on wheels to organ music at the first skating rinks, Tasha Klusmann says. Skating didn’t become commonplace in black communities until years later, when roller skates became widely affordable, and paved streets and sidewalks gave kids somewhere to use them, she says. But even then—Washington’s big rinks opened in the late 1940s—segregation forced black skaters to roll on the streets, in church basements, in party rooms and other non-traditional venues.
As it happened, this was about the same time records became widely available. So people skated to the sound of local R&B music—mostly local acts unique to each city. Those local acts created each city’s distinct style, which persist in black communities throughout the country today, long after rinks integrated, boomed, and finally began to disappear: Up-tempo club anthems gave New Yorkers their bent-knee, bouncy moves; Chicago’s J.B. style, known for its show-stopping tricks, got its name from the James Brown music that created it; D.C. favored the kind of slow jams played on the legendary Howard University Radio program, “The Quiet Storm,” which lent itself to the fast, smooth, and straight-up style the city’s skaters are still known for.
“Segregation forced creativity,” Tasha Klusmann says. “Style skating happened because of segregation, both in terms of venue and music.”
Kalorama integrated in 1957. Since it was one of the first rinks in the region to do so, it became a hotbed of black culture and community. “What integration really meant was that the whites left, and the blacks came in,” Tasha Klusmann says. “Kalorama was such a huge, fine facility that blacks from all over the East Coast came here to skate.”
Big Willis’ skating career began the same year Washington erupted into riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He moved here shortly after the rioting, arriving in a city where anxiety still ruled. Against that backdrop, he says, Kalorama seemed like a sanctuary. “U Street was already tore up by the time I got here,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do about that. All I knew was to skate.”