These days, he’s liable to face off against younger competitors like Paul, who never had the chance to skate at places like Kalorama.
Kids who grew up skating in the smaller rinks “skate differently,” Klusmann says. “They don’t stretch out the same way, or have the same flow.”
At 2:30 a.m., organizers clear the floor for the competition.
The couples, women’s, and men’s categories take the floor first, zooming around the outside of the rink, moving to the beat as they drop to their knees, kick one leg back and forth in mid-air, or twirl 360 degrees on a dime. Big Willis and Big Jim watch from the rail until their category is called to the floor.
When Willis and Jim start their routine, there’s little but their gray hair to set them apart from the three other pairs they’re competing against, all of whom start by circling the rink with smooth, gliding foot strokes. Big Willis recognizes all his competitors, including Thomas Paul and his skate partner Mark Banks, from low-key skate nights in the area. All of his competitors are from Baltimore, and most of them are young enough to be his grandsons.
Willis leads the way in a two-person train, his skates and Jim’s moving as a single unit, their hands remaining linked as Willis starts adding kicks, dips, and turns.
Their younger competitors follow suit, putting their own accents on the twists and twirls. At one point, Paul and Banks, both dressed in M.A.D. Unity’s black pants and white shirts, roll off the exit ramp and into the wildly applauding crowd, performing a couple quick spins and jumps before gliding back onto the floor.
Suddenly, while leading Jim around the rink, Willis lifts one leg straight in front of him and bends the other, a move called “shoot the duck” that looks like a deep single-leg squat.
The crowd hasn’t even finished applauding when Jim reaches through his legs and pulls Willis through. The cheers are still wild, barely drowned out by the thump of the bass in the jazzy, instrumental song they’re skating to, when Willis and Jim separate and head to opposite sides of the rink.
“They’re setting something up,” Tasha says, arms crossed and eyes squinted as she watches for their next move.
Jim waits in the center while Willis starts skating toward him. Willis barely slows down as he squats down low, then skates directly through Jim’s legs, a move that makes it hard to remember there’s anyone else in the rink at all.
“These children weren’t even thought about when Willis started laying down these moves,” Tasha says, clapping loudly in approval.
To finish, he drops into a split, one leg sliding forward and the other backward, as the crowd squeals and cheers.
Before trophies are awarded, the competition’s organizers present another set of awards, to honor the “pioneers of style skating”—part of a larger effort to honor and preserve the sport’s legacy and history before those who lived it are gone. One award goes to the Wheels of Fortune, and is accepted by Norbert and Tasha Klusmann, the unlikely savior of D.C. style-skating history.
Klusmann is tall and thin, with big brown eyes and smooth, cappuccino-colored skin that makes her look younger than her 43 years. Warm and chatty, she speaks with the precision of a professional historian. She isn’t, though she’s spent a decade doing something pretty close. Back in 2000, Klusmann was researching a documentary meant to illustrate the need for a public skating rink in the District. As part of her research, she interviewed legendary D.C. skater Howard “Honey Boy” Williams.
Williams talked about his early skate memories—standing outside Riverside Stadium, an arena that stood where the Kennedy Center does now, in the 1940s, wishing he could join the white skaters heading inside. It made Klusmann realize that “this is not just recreation,” she says. “This is our history. When you live something, you’re not conscious of the meaning behind it. We were missing the whole boat.”
African-American cultural history has received its share of scholarly attention, but Klusmann found that major research centers such as Howard University didn’t have a record of the community that has defined her life. So Klusmann, who works full-time for D.C.’s Department on Disability Services, and had no experience as an archivist, offered to create one. “When Honey Boy told me that story, it made me realize that our story needs to be captured, and there wasn’t anyone else to capture it,” says Klusmann. “Who better to step up than me?”