WE'RE SO OLD-FASHIONED, we still do the 'Hokey Pokey,' " says Dennis Brown, manager of the Rockville Wheel-a-While roller skating rink.
Visits to his and other rinks, in fact, feel like a quick dive into the 1950s: Eight-year-old boys hold each other's hands during Couples Only skates, fathers buffer tiny tots hovering close to the edge of the rink, teenage boys haul their kid sisters around, and 10-year-old- girls form lines of fast-rolling giggles.
Some things have changed from the skating days of yore, of course. Madonna and Pink Floyd, rather than organ music, blare over the loudspeaker; the crystal balls of the 1970s disco skating era turn on the ceiling; video games beep and zap in the corner; and the skates themselves are high-tech improvements over the ones of yesteryear. But the atmosphere reeks of that rarest of 1980s commodities, Innocent Fun.
"We don't allow smoking or drinking, and we cater to young children," says Jack Becker, president of the Wheel-a-While chain, which has eight rinks in this area. "Of course, some of these kids can be tricky -- especially the junior-high age. We don't have trouble with the high school kids." Wheel-a-Whiles have at least one guard on each rink at all times, but their main job is to pick up fallen skaters, Becker says.
Some other rinks cater to a faster crowd, and have as many as 10 guards, who are occasionally called on to break up fights.
Whatever their styles, most rinks fill with different types at different times, catering to singles, say, on Friday night, and families on Saturday afternoon.
Parents are warned to check things out before dropping off their kids: "We like to see the parents come in with their kids," Becker says. "For one thing, their children are usually the better behaved ones. And for another, the parents usually wind up skating, too."
Most rinks try to draw parents in by scheduling Family Skates, where the children typically skate for free. Then there are skate-ins at public recreation centers, which tend to fill with the after-school elementary-age crowd or young teens, recreation managers say.
In addition, some rinks have a special time set aside just for new skaters, where they can learn simply to balance on skates without a lot of pros whizzing by.
"We started our kids at about 17 months," Dennis Brown says of his three children, third- generation skaters who now help behind the snack bar, "and I know a lot of pros who started theirs sooner. As soon as they can walk, they can skate."
Sam Gilyard, who manages the "last of the dinosaurs" (the Alexandria Roller Rink), says his staff will sometimes tighten up a couple of wheels on neophyte youngsters' skates so they don't roll so freely.
"That way they learn to pick up their feet and walk in them," he says.
Other rinks encourage the youngsters to practice on the carpeted area or stay in the center of the rink with a parent by their side. And many of the local rinks, including Wheel- a-While, offer inexpensive classes to help the beginner. But Becker wonders how necessary these are.
"These days, parents all think that the only way their kids can learn is with lessons -- swimming lessons, bike lessons, roller skating lessons. Most kids learn just by doing it," he says.
For those who want to go beyond learning the scissors or the backward skate, some rinks teach artistic skating in group and private lessons. Graduates of these classes often join a club, such as Wheel-a-While's National Capital Dance and Figure Skating Club, and work toward competing in local, regional and national championships.
"Roller skating's just like ice skating, except that it's more graceful," says Dennis Brown's father, Tom, who ran the Alexandria Roller Rink for 26 years. "All the stuff you see Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill doing on ice, you can do on roller skates." Brown and his wife used to do dance routines, and he remembers the days when rinks were full of such couples: "It was like a show."
More than the rinks have changed since then -- namely, the price of a pair of skates. Roller skates today can set you back anywhere from $40 to $400, covering a range in quality comparable to the Volkswagen to Cadillac spread, says Gilyard. His rink can rent you "something in a Buick."
"You can still buy $20 or $30 skates," Becker says, "but the boot is probably made of vinyl, which makes your foot sweat, and the wheels aren't that good."
Outstanding boots, Gilyard says, are double-lined with leather to give good support, and constructed so that "at the end of the evening, your foot doesn't ache."
With the way children's feet grow, Becker says, most parents would be better off simply renting skates. But committed skaters -- like Dennis Brown's daughters, who practice their dance routines three hours per day -- prefer to buy their own skates.
Such "artistic" or "freestyle" skating is on the way up, says Becker, whereas recreational skating is on the way down. "We die on weeknights," Dennis Brown acknowledges. "I think everyone's home with the VCR."
That can make skating on a week night more fun, say the skaters; you're less likely to encounter a crowd. Evenings are also more likely to be given over to fitness-conscious adults, enjoying the aerobic aspects of whirling around a rink.
But most rinks still see themselves, as Dennis Brown puts it, as "glorified babysitters."
"For the price of a movie, your kid gets, not 90 minutes of sitting but three hours of entertainment. And if you're lucky, they go home tired and go to bed early."
Many rinks cater to scout groups, day care centers, handicapped schools, and birthday parties, offering package deals with party favors and a special room or table.
Whether you're coming for a party, a class or just an afternoon out of the house, roller rinks can offer an easy escape. Besides, it's the only place in the Washington metropolitan area where our 11-year-old daughter will let us hold her hand in public. ROLL OUT THE RINKS
Skating is available at perhaps a dozen professional rinks and many recreation centers. Here's a sampling: WHEEL-A-WHILE -- 577-8889, eight locations from Pasadena, Md., to Franconia, Va. Skating seven evenings per week plus weekend and school holiday matinees. Cost: $1.75 to $3.50, depending on time, plus $1 skate rental. Beginner lessons for $10; group and private instructions; birthday party package; skating club; private rental. ALEXANDRIA ROLLER RINK -- 805 N. St. Asaph St., 836-2199. Six evening sessions plus weekend matinees. Closed to the public Monday. Cost: $1 to $4, depending on time. Skate rental, $1. Some adults-only times, open till 2 a.m. Largest rink in area. Party rental available. RESTON SKATEWAY -- 471-5008, 1800 Michael Faraday Court. Open seven evenings plus weekend and Monday matinees. Thursday is Family night; games at all sessions. Cost: $2 to $5, plus $1 skate rental. Lessons for beginners. Small rink; children are not allowed to leave building without parents. D.C. RECREATION DEPARTMENT -- 576-6874. Offers free skating sessions at 29 centers. Programs run until March 7, most during the week but there are some weekend hours; participants must bring their own skates. ARLINGTON COUNTY COMMUNITY CENTERS -- 558- 2152. Skating offered every Saturday night at Thomas Jefferson Community Center; occasional Friday nights at Madison Community Center, plus Wednesdays after school at Madison. Admission: $1 plus 50 cents skate rental. MONTGOMERY COUNTY RECREATION DEPARTMENT -- 540-1300. Offers skating at three community centers in the northern part of the county -- Longwood (Olney), Upper County (Gaithersburg) and Plumgar (Germantown) -- usually on Friday nights, for 50 cents, including skate rental. PRINCE GEORGE'S PARKS & RECREATION DEPARTMENT -- North 445-4500; Central 249-9220; South 248-1260. Hours and sites vary widely in the three sections.For information, call the above numbers for your section, or your local community center. Cost is $1 to $2. Skate rental, $1.