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Wholly Rollers

Artistic roller figure skaters four-wheeling at the Rollerdrome

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After the crowds of giggling teens have returned home from a weekend of midnight skate sessions, long after the couple skates are over, after the thumping pop music has been shut down and the lights turned up above the dark rink, a group of skaters take the floor of Nampa's Rollerdrome on a cloudy Sunday morning to quietly test their skills. With a small crowd looking on, 12-year-old Mariam Slater carefully traces painted black lines on the rink's wooden floor with her roller skates, as four judges intently watch how accurately she conforms to that line, marking notes on clipboards and calculating her score.

Slater is testing for figures. Before each test, a judge tells her a number and she translates that number onto the lines and follows them with precise timing and accurate technique. Dressed in a pink skating costume with her hair in an updo, she's confident in her ability to complete whatever figures the judges task her with, but her flushed face and shaky smile betray her nervousness as to how well she executes each move under the pressure of four pairs of examining eyes. Once she has finished each of the figures, the judges dismiss her and the small crowd applauds enthusiastically as she leaves the rink and the next skater is introduced over the loudspeaker. While 18-year-old Albertson College student Jesse Holmes is judged on his figures skills, Slater frets over her performance with her 15-year-old sister, Margaret, and 14-year-old Marissa Achenbach, both of whom are awaiting their turns to complete loop tests.

The day's test center is the culmination of a year's worth of hard work and practice by the Rollerdrome's artistic roller figure skating club, most of whose members have spent months diligently memorizing figures and loops, and logging hundreds of hours on skates to hone their skills on four wheels. Although the Rollerdrome has had a figure skating club intermittently since it was built half a century ago, the goings on of the current competitive club--which began around 1987--are little known beyond the small group of students and instructors. Despite its longevity in the valley and the national award-winners who skate with the club, few Treasure Valley residents even know that artistic roller figure skating exists.

First recorded in 1743, in London, roller skating has evolved beyond its rudimentary beginnings into a sanctioned competitive sport on an international level and a pastime enjoyed globally. Since the first public roller skating rink was opened in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1866, the popularity of skating has waxed and waned with passing decades. After the skate craze of the 1970s produced movies like Roller Boogie and Skatetown USA, roller skating sank into a slump and was the sort of thing capable waitresses did while balancing trays full of food in retro cafes. Not until the introduction of inline skates years later did roller skating experience a resurgence.

Carl Empey today.  Empey works at the rink, fixes skates and is one of the volunteer judges - PHOTO BY: JESSI STRONG
  • Photo by: Jessi Strong
  • Carl Empey today. Empey works at the rink, fixes skates and is one of the volunteer judges
However, artistic roller figure skating, which evolved in tandem with artistic ice figure skating since its inception, never did regain the popularity it once enjoyed.

Much like artistic ice figure skating, artistic roller figure skating in three disciplines (dance, figures and freestyle) is judged on accuracy, technique and ability. When a push in the 1980s to make roller figure skating an Olympic sport failed, ice figure skating catapulted into the limelight on a level that roller figure skating has yet to find.

"Roller figure skating was more popular than ice figure skating in the United States for a long time," says Rollerdrome owner Ray Lenty, who serves as one of the day's judges. Lenty, who has been a competitive skater since his youth, and was a national champion in pair-skating in 1968, says, "In the '60s and '70s, the number of roller skating competitions was far more than on ice, and it was popular in the United States as a possible Olympic sport, but not in other parts of the world." In its pursuit to become sanctioned by the Olympics, governing bodies of the sport encouraged artistic roller figure skating to begin copycatting ice skating instead of staying a course which would continue to develop the uniqueness of the sport.

However, the gradual decline in the popularity of artistic roller figure skating did not mean complete obscurity for the sport, even in the Treasure Valley, where a group of dedicated skaters has spent years passing on the tricks of the trade to younger generations.

Along with Lenty and the three other judges who volunteer their time to test students, coach Linda Lester Moody has spent decades teaching the art of roller figure skating in and around Boise.

Born to parents who met at Boise skating rinks when skates were still clamped onto shoes, Moody says her friends joke that she was born to skate.

"I first started helping skaters when I was a child," says Moody. She traveled the valley with her parents, helping kids learn to skate at area rinks, as well as at the Garden Roller Bowl, owned and operated by her parents.

It wasn't until her 20s that Moody began to get seriously involved with artistic roller figure skating. "Skateland in Boise had some dance classes and, in the early 1970s, I started taking classes and taking some tests." After Skateland stopped offering classes, Moody began driving to Portland, Oregon, to learn new skills and test into new levels. While practicing in Boise, Moody says she was always helping skaters at the rink, and when someone told her there was an opening for a teacher at Skateworld in the mid-'80s, Moody took the job and has been teaching and coaching ever since.

Despite years of being instructed and instructing others, it wasn't until 2001 that Moody had the opportunity to compete.

"When I first started coaching, you could not compete if you were a coach," explains Moody. "Years ago, I had to make a choice to offer lessons, class and instruction to others or to compete. I decided to teach and give other skaters the opportunity since there wasn't really anything available to skaters in the valley at that time."

However, Moody's husband Dave represented the Moody name well in competition. Dave, who began competing in 1997 at the age of 50, took first place at the Junior Olympic National Competition with partner Alice Tracy that same year. Today, with new regulations in place for coaches, Linda is able to compete. Coached by Carl Empey, who is one of the volunteer coaches and judges for the Rollerdrome's club, Linda and Dave placed regionally as a dance team several years ago, and continue to train for upcoming competitions.

During Sunday morning's test center at the Rollerdrome, the Moodys are involved on and off the rink. Linda runs the tight schedule of testing, announcing skaters and queuing music, while Dave videotapes figures and loops tests, and partners with the girls testing in team dance. The judging is left to four volunteer judges, who evaluate skaters on everything from timing, precision and posture to creativity, agility and technical ability. Judges must be not only adept at assessing a number of aspects at once, but must be highly knowledgeable, as every hand and foot move and position on the floor is a formulaic procedure not open to artistic expression. For example, one judges' reference is a manual with a figure line (which will be skated around the rink) marked with annotations like "LOF, XF-RIF, LOF, RIF"RC"," and further explanations like "steps 4, 10 and 17 are raised chasse steps and steps 2, 8 and 14 are crossed progressive steps." And these instructions are amateur-level; judges for higher levels of competition must be extremely knowledgeable to properly calculate proficiency.

While the scores are tabulated for the test center's final results, judge Jerry Cannaday and mock judge Ken Carlsen--who is in the process of being re-commissioned as a certified judge--remember back to the days when they were skating competitively, saying it was Art Russell who first got them interested in artistic roller skating.

Margaret Slater - PHOTO BY: JESSI STRONG
"Art was lifetime member of the RSROA (Roller Skating Rink Operators Association) and a very good pro," says Cannaday.

"And he was as good in figures as Peggy Fleming was on ice," adds Carlsen.

Between the two of them, Cannaday and Carlsen have collected dozens of trophies, medals and patches from various competitions and clubs over the years. They sort through old photos they've collected of each other as they show off with split jumps and spins on maple floors covered in plaster of paris. The two remark on the quality of the Rollerdrome's facilities, explaining that it's one of the best floors in the country for artistic roller skating because of the floor's unique bent-board style, a type of floor too cost prohibitive to be constructed today.

With the final results in for the day's tests, Linda calls each skater onto the rink and announces which tests each passed. While Cannaday and Carlsen collected medals for passing proficiency tests like the ones they spent the morning judging, the figure skaters today will receive pins, yet another sign of the sport's change over decades.

As the performers are congratulated with applause and roses from the small crowd, a collective sense of accomplishment is shared by the students, the judges and their coach. With only minutes before public skate begins at the Rollerdrome, the students enjoy their moments in the limelight and skate off the rink. As the Rollerdrome's doors open for the day, the crowds arrive and the DJ spins the first of the day's loudly thumping tunes, the figure skaters pull sweatshirts over their skating costumes and head out onto the floor for the first all-skate of the day.