"I say jam," the first song began, a funk-filled number by the Strawberry Hill Gang. The disco disciples jumped up to catch the beat, strapping on skate boots and headbands in screaming colors. A boy with ersatz priest's garb whizzed around the track, "Rolling Saints" splashed across his back.
Pairs of thickly muscled legs scissored; pairs of rolling wheels screeched with every beat. Colored lights flashed as they circled the rink. The crowd lurched, spun, bobbed and dipped. Skate guards whistled, pointed, argued, winked.
National Roller Skating Rink at 17th Street and Kalorama Road NW is not only the granddaddy of city rinks; it shakes its bootee better than any in town.
Sleek George Dunmore, 19, helps keep it that way.
"If you can't skate, you better not come here on a Sunday night," he said, taking one of his few pit stops on a recent Sunday evening, D.C's traditional skating night. "Too many wild people come here, showing off."
George, dashing in red Lacoste and designer jeans, is a warrior in the National Roller City. His war is one of style, fought every Sunday night at the National, a high-domed mecca of daring on wheels.
"I got about six trophies 'cause I got different moves," he said. "I do an eagle spring, a shuffle, a spin. Com Trophy night, me and a dude named Marty always come in first. Practice makes perfect," he yelled over his shoulder, skating over to ease back into the high-speed, circling pack.
National is a city unto itself in the gut of Adams Morgan, a city whose anthem is braggadocio, but whose creed is skating excellence. No one seems to know exactly when it opened its doors, but many veterans say it was some time in the 1950s.
The rink has made rough Knights of George and his friend and mentor Martin "Skating Rink" Johnson.
From his home in Southeast, George sometimes takes a series of three buses to get to the rink. He lugs his heavy leather skates and a towel in a special bag he has just bought for the purpose.
His and Marty's mutual admiration of skills runs deep.
"Keep an eye on him," George says of Marty, who whips around the rink spinning, breaking into a split. Then he's up, spinning the other way, slicing his leg out, whipping it back and dandling it out, then in and out again. He whirls to a stop, dripping with sweat."George is pretty good, too," he says.
The evening continues. The thicker the crowd milling at the floor's entrance, the more aggressive the individual introductions. "Hello young lady, my name is Ramone A. Bullock and I am the next feather-weight champion of the world," says a skinny young man who has stationed himself just past the doorway.
He repeated the line to a couple of young women who had to wiggle past him to get inside. "Aw, shut up man, she don't want to talk to you," his friend said.
"Move along, fellows -- let's go on in," manager Charles Hawkins commands whenever the people-watchers collect too close to the entrance. A combination of feudal lord and baby-sitter, he intersperses his policing of the rink with much tying of skates and tickling of babies. Babies are everywhere, brought by girls old enough to have them but too young to give up the skating and giggling.
"This is a twenty-four-hour-a-day thing," he says, "but I like it." Hawkins remembers some of the rougher days, notably a shooting, which gave the rink a bad reputation.There are occasional fights, but nothing Hawkins feels the staff can't handle. In fact, he says, the people who give him the most trouble are gays who frequent the rink but who don't want to observe the dress code.
Hawkins pointed to a large sign pasted to the cashier's window "Anyone dressed in a manner in which SEX cannot be Readily Distiguished WILL NOT BE ADMITTED to the National Rollar (sic) Rink."
Helping Hawkins maintain order are red-shirted skate guards who stay on the floor to slow down speeders and to pick up the victims. Many are multi-year veterans who skated at National before the disco bulb was planted in the ceiling, let alone became too dirty to shine.
Eddie Sanders has worked at the rink since it opened, "whenever that was," he says, except for his brief stretch in the Army. His brother Bernard is a 14-year veteran. "When I got here, it was so many people you could hardly move. They used to have four or five organ players -- a lot of people left when the organs did." The merits of organ music versus disco is a big point of contention here.
"The crowd is a lot faster, too," he says. "They're racing, not skating, but they enjoy it," Sanders, like the other guards, lets it be known that he is available for impromptu skating lessions, especially if the student happens to be female and pretty.
Willie Monore wears his twenty-year pin proudly. "Twenty long years," he says as he stoops to lift a young man who has spilled into the rink's pipe fence. "I was one of the first ushers, back when it was white. Blacks and whites used to sit on opposite sides of the rink. Wasn't no trouble, just wasn't like it is now."
The "All Skate" sign blinks off, and after the guards wipe the sweat from the floor, the "Couples Only" sign flickers on. While Earth, Wind and Fire croons a vibrating "Reasons" into the cavernous hall, the chairs surrounding the rink demurely hide the last-minute dickering for partners.
A chubby little girl grabs a slightly shorter little boy and pulls him onto the rink by his skinny wrist. A tall, gangly teen-ager walks up to one, then another and finally another heavily-made-up woman before a short girl in pigtails walks up to him. They soon skate off together. George Dunmore and a male friend link arms and start spinning around each other before they find women skating as fast.
A breathy 13-year-old speaks rapidly, her wide, shining brown eyes searching anxiously for her hero.
Behind her stand two heavy-hipped older women, practicing a routine, skating in circles. One stops a minute to fix her tight bun of hair and talks about her old skating club.
"I've been coming here twenty years. We're going to get a club back together when we get some practice in. We're going to wear the same type of sweaters, red and white," she says, smiling over at her friend.
"Anyway, before, it was a thing where you just had to come skate every Sunday and every Wednesday," she says, recalling her early skating days. Then the clubs would organize routines and compete with each other on weekends. "You started coming at Sunday matinees, then as your mama started letting you out more you'd make it to the nights. Now we're older and have responsibilities, but it (skating) will be around a long time."
"We just have to learn to keep up with them," says her friend of the spinning disco fans who overtook the rink two years ago. "I like the organ better myself."
Martin "Skating Rink" Johnson, whose mother brought him to the rink when he was a child, agrees with the women. He liked the organ player. "He played with feelings, and he made you skate with feelings. People are just racing. It didn't used to be like that."
Marty reveals that all is not golden in the closed world of the National Rink. "You know how it is now? You ever hear of them stories? Soap opera, that's what this is. Everybody knows everybody's business. And jealousy, one person talking about the other because he can skate or because they can dress. Same old tired thing," he says.
The "All Skate" sign has flickered off for the last time this evening as the deejay finishes his last song. The "All Clear" sign appears and the house lights slowly brighten. Briefly, the lights reveal all the ceiling's accumulation of dust, all the cracks in the plaster and all the holes in the floor surrounding the rink. Marty picks his way out, choosing carefully whom to nod at and just as carefully whom to ignore. He doesn't seem to see the dirt, the stains, the rust. Perhaps he has memorized all of it.
"It's home for me," he says, slapping one last five before disappearing down the street. "Every time I leave out the house, I stop in to see what's rollin.'"