Inside New York’s Throwback Roller-Skating Extravaganza

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To some people, a roller rink is just a place to skim around in a circle, not even very fast, going nowhere. But to its devotees and to the creators of the DiscOasis, a new skate experience in Central Park, it is transformational, spiritual — time travel on four wheels.

On Saturday night, more than a thousand skaters packed Wollman Rink, laced up their quads and spun off into sparkling nostalgia. Spotlights shone onto the surrounding trees, as a concert-level light show bathed the space in cyan, fuschias and golds. “Good Times,” that 1970s party staple, blared from D.J. Funkmaster Flex’s booth, as the crowd — some wobblies, some more expert — parted for the pros: One roller dancer in flared jeans dropped to a split, while another flipped off her wheels, uncoiling into a headstand. For 10 minutes, it was all hot pants and acrobatics, and then regular New Yorkers — many with a style not far-off — slid back in.

Hovering over this opening night like a sequined demigod was Nile Rodgers, the Chic guitarist, funk-disco eminence and lifelong skater. He curated music for the DiscOasis, and, with voice-over introductions, provides its cultural through line from 1970s and ’80s New York, when he used to frequent the city’s now shuttered, once legendary rinks with Diana Ross and Cher. Kevin Bacon and Robert Downey Jr. too. (The ’80s were wild.) With some skill on wheels, “You feel like you have special human powers,” Rodgers said in a recent video interview. “You feel like you can fly.”

Roller-skating is having another flash of popularity, but the DiscOasis sets itself apart from the city’s other rinks and pop-up events (Rockefeller Center is temporarily hosting wheelers, too) through its production value, theatricality and pedigree. There’s blossoming disco balls as big as eight feet in diameter, and a multitiered stage, created by the Tony-nominated set designer David Korins, who did “Hamilton” and shows for Lady Gaga. The cast of 13 includes legends of New York roller disco, like the long-limbed skater known as Cotto, a fixture in the city’s parks for more than four decades, whose signature leg twirls and pivots have influenced scores of skaters.

“We call it jam skating,” he said. the DiscOasis coaxed him out of retirement — he’s had both hips replaced — for choreographed shows, five nights a week.

The energy is ecstatic, and infectious. “Being on wheels is paradise to me,” said Robin Mayers Anselm, 59, who grew up going to Empire, the storied Brooklyn emporium. “I feel more connected to myself and my spirit when I skate.”

That’s true even for the newbies, like Robin L. Dimension, an actress wearing an embellished jumpsuit and a chunky “Queen” necklace with her psychedelic-patterned skates. “I got a really nice outfit,” she said, “so I look good going down.”

Billed as “an immersive musical and theatrical experience,” the DiscOasis began last year outside of Los Angeles, the pandemic brainchild of an events company led by a C.A.A. agent. But its foundational home was always New York, and it will be open daily through October.

“For us, DiscOasis is a movement, it’s a vibe — we want as many people to be able to experience it,” said Thao Nguyen, its executive producer, and chief executive of Constellation Immersive, its parent company, which partnered with Live Nation and Los Angeles Media Fund to stage the series.

For New York’s skate community, it is first and foremost a good floor. “You know, we’re not impressed by the accouterments of the illusion,” said Tone Rapp Fleming, a New York native and skater for 50 years, who came for a preview on Thursday. That’s mostly because ride-or-die skaters like him and his friend Lynná Davis, vice president of the Central Park Dance Skaters Association, would skate on a trash can lid, as she put it. But they praised the rink’s glidable new surface, painted in primary shades of blue, yellow and red.

The DiscOasis’s creators knew that if they won over the old-school skate crew, the world would follow; Davis, an ageless wonder in rainbow-flecked braids and custom bejeweled, be-fringed wheels, helped with casting. “Work it out, kids!” she cheered on the younger dancers, as they cartwheeled their routine, to a soundtrack that spun from Queen to “Rapper’s Delight.”

Rodgers created the playlists for the performances, which happen throughout the night, interspersed with live D.J.s. (the daytime is for more relaxed skating). A longtime New Yorker, Rodgers coined his skate style as a 12- or 13-year-old on a brief sojourn in Los Angeles, when he tore up the town with other kids, performing little routines. “I had this wobbly leg way of skating,” he said. He still does, “even though I’m going to be 70. And it looks cool.”

His crew stood out even then: “We used to skate to jazz,” he said, recalling their grooves to the guitarist Wes Montgomery’s 1965 classic “Bumpin’ on Sunset.”

Fast forward 30 years, and Rodgers had largely hung up his skates. But he has been so energized by his association with the DiscOasis, which approached him for the Los Angeles event, that it reignited his devotion. Now on tour in Europe, he has been conjuring minirinks wherever he goes, one hotel ballroom at a time.

“They lift up the rugs for me and create a big dance floor,” he said. “I can skate in a little square. There’s nobody in there, because I skate at such weird hours — 4 or 5 in the morning.” (He doesn’t sleep much. As befits a disco-era fashion legend, he also has personalized skates — orange, green, iridescent — which got stuck in customs on their way to Europe. His favorite are a classic pair of black Riedells.)

Even for someone well-versed in skate culture, the Los Angeles version of the DiscOasis offered some lessons. Most skaters only stick to the rink for about 45 minutes, Rodgers said. The space around Wollman has a nonskate dance floor and a few Instagram-ready installations inspired by his music. The giant half-disco ball stuffed with oversize wedding bouquets, pearls and askew mannequin legs, for example, is supposed to symbolize Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” which he produced.

For Korins, the production designer, the space is a Studio 54 throwback, but fresher. “We’re leaning into this oasis idea — if you think about mirrored balls and foliage coming together to have a child, that’s what we’re making,” he said. (Think discofied palm trees and cactuses.) And the Central Park location, with the Manhattan skyline rising above it, brings its own magic. “It takes all the best things about roller-skating and disco and it literally rips the roof off,” he said.

Like other skate habitués, Korins has a theory about why it remains to addictive. “It’s really hard to find an experience in life that’s both kinetic and dynamic,” he said — you can flex your solo style and also get the communion of “an organism moving around together.”

Shernita Anderson, the choreographer, saw that in action. For solos, the cast was on its own. “We were like, ‘Go off, live your best life!’” she said. “And that’s what they did.”

Pirouetting and high-kicking his way through the act was Keegan James Robataille, 20, a musical-theater-trained dancer who only began skating two years ago as a pandemic outlet. A swing in the company, this is his first professional, contracted gig. He grew up near a rink in Amsterdam, N.Y. “I remember going there all throughout middle school and being like, ‘Wow, I wish I could skate backwards and do these cool tricks,’” he said. “And here I am performing in New York City, doing what little me would have dreamed of doing.”

A closing number — set to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” naturally — came on and he sailed away for his cue. It had the skaters in capes dotted with LEDs, like luminescent butterflies.

“I have never seen anything like this in New York,” said Samantha O’Grady, a 24-year-old native. The rinks she started learning at all closed “by the time I was a tween,” she said, but the retro ambience of the DiscOasis gave her a flicker of how the scene looked before her time. “I sent a picture to my mother; she was so jealous.”

First-time visitors were already planning to become regulars, like Robbin Ziering, whose wedding was on wheels. “We love to work, we love to dance, we love music — but we live to skate,” she said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

Kalia Richardson contributed reporting.