Credit: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

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On a plastic bench near the snack bar, Big Willis laces up his skates. It’s around midnight, a few hours before the competition begins. Slow jams pour from the DJ booth. Competitors practice their spins, drops, and dips in the center of the floor as hundreds of other skaters revolve around them.

Wearing a sly smile and graying goatee, Big Willis rolls onto the smooth wooden floor. He’s decked out in a long-sleeve, button-down black shirt and a porkpie hat, the uniform of his Master Rollers skate club. On the rink, he glides along backwards to greet friends, cruising through a crowd of competitors young enough to be his children or grandchildren.

Big Willis—aka Willis Epps Sr.—is 60 years old and stands 5-foot-4. His nickname, which is familiar to just about everyone in the crowd crammed into Baltimore’s Shake N Bake roller rink, serves mainly to distinguish him from his 40-year-old son, Willis Epps Jr. As it happens, Lil’ Willis stands 5-foot-5. He’s here, too, clad in a button-down white shirt emblazoned with the logo of his Midnight Rollers, a train with the face of a clock.

In a few hours, father and son, the leaders of two of D.C.’s greatest skating squads, will take the floor in Kollage Entertainment’s Total Trick Explosion Competition, in the dual trick and trios categories, respectively.

For now, though, the scene is more like a cross between a roller-rink birthday party and a dance club. Skaters zoom around the perimeter, with knees, hips and shoulders moving to the thumping bass line. Groups link hands, moving as a single train—maintaining their straight lines even when the first skater in line drops into a tuck, or lifts a leg out in front and kicks it in and out to the beat. Couples skate side by side in lockstep, breaking apart only to throw in ballroom dance moves.

Tonight’s crowd includes about a dozen D.C.-area skate clubs, which are like fraternities or sororities on wheels. The women of Butterflys-N-Unity don pleated red-plaid skirts, white tank tops, and red neckties. M.A.D. Unity is rolling with simple white shirts and black pants.

Events like tonight’s used to be a lot more common. Style skating, an athletic, fluid mash-up of roller-skating and dancing, was born at segregation-era skate nights in black communities throughout the country in the 1950s and 1960s. But D.C.’s biggest rinks closed in the 1980s. Today, skaters like Big Willis are apt to drive longer and longer distances to show their stuff. And the first generation of style skaters is dying out, taking a piece of African-American cultural history with them.

Epps says part of his life’s work is to pass along his legacy to younger generations. But only part. First, he has a competition to win. And as things get going, he pronounces himself confident. He’s got a move the young bucks won’t be able to touch. “Mostly,” he says, “they know me for the split.”

Big Willis moved to Washington in 1968, at age 17. Before that, he says, he’d never seen roller skates before. Epps had been raised, mostly by his grandmother, in Garysburg, N.C. Money was tight; Epps picked cotton for 15 cents an hour. He left home at age 14, picking tobacco on a farm in exchange for some spending money and a shed to sleep in.

In D.C., something clicked when a cousin took Big Willis to the old National Arena Roller Rink, on Kalorama Road NW—known simply as Kalorama. After a few clumsy revolutions, he recalls, he thought: “I’m going to get good at this.” He started skating, once a day, twice on weekends, basically any time he wasn’t working as a dishwasher or cook’s helper, his first jobs when he moved to the District.

Within three months, Big Willis could hang with the fastest skaters in the rink. He became a floor guard, a cross between lifeguard and bouncer, at the sprawling Alexandria Arena, which could fit 3,000 people. Among them was Lil’ Willis’ mother, Claudell Epps, who Big Willis first met skating. By the time Lil’ Willis was two, mom and dad had him on skates as well.

Alexandria was knocked down in 1987; a hotel now stands in its place, at the corner of Madison and N. St. Asaph streets. Kalorama, thanks to its historic art-deco façade, was luckier: The building, if not the skating, was preserved. Today, the structure holds a Harris Teeter grocery store that serves a gentrified swath of Adams Morgan.

Big Willis and Claudell Epps split up when Lil’ Willis was young. The senior Epps, who owns and operates Epps Fleet Automotive, a mobile-mechanic service, now has nine children from five mothers, he says. But while his family life has sometimes been tumultuous, skating has been a constant. He’s won so many skating trophies over the past 43 years that he no longer keeps track of what the awards stashed on a coffee table in the back of his living room are all for.

Big Willis says he’s actually discarded older trophies commemorating his favorite competitions, like the one in Forestville in the late 1980s. Then, Big Willis was in the third round of a skate-off against a guy who managed to copy or top his every move—until Willis delivered the rink equivalent of a knock-out punch by doing a cartwheel on skates. “He said, ‘When did you start doing that?,’” Big Willis says. “I said, ‘I dunno. Just then.’”

Today, Big Willis and his third wife—Lynette, who also skates with the Master Rollers—share a brick ranch house in Temple Hills, in Prince George’s County. Some of the 14 antique and classic cars he’s collected since 1982 sit along the street out front and in his six-car garage out back. The collection includes a 1939 Packard and two 1966 Mustangs, but also features a less exotic automobile: The 22-seat 1990 Ford bus that has transported the Master Rollers to Saturday-night skate parties in Chicago, Virginia Beach, Raleigh, and Atlanta. Big Willis bought the vehicle for $1,000 from his church, Rehoboth Baptist in Congress Heights. He outfitted it with surround-sound speakers, a television, air conditioning, and, of course, the Master Rollers logo.

Tonight, the bus has brought the group to Baltimore, where they’ll face hundreds of other skaters from cities along the eastern U.S. “When I skate, I say to myself, ‘I’m like a Michael Jordan,’” says Big Willis. “‘This is something I do good. Nobody can take it away from me.’ I guess a whole lot of other people feel that way, too.”

By 1:30 a.m., skaters from Ohio and New Jersey are still rolling in off the interstate. Many of them plan to skate until dawn, then turn around and drive home again. For the most part, these aren’t club kids accustomed to late nights. Many are middle-aged adults with families and jobs. They meet locally at more reasonable hours, too. But the all-night skate parties are the heart of the sport.

Modern style-skating competitions are often loosely-organized affairs that happen organically, when a circle forms in the middle of the floor and skaters challenge each other to one-up each other’s last moves, dance-party style. Winners are determined by popular appeal, measured by applause. Tonight’s contest is slightly more official, with categories including men’s, women’s, and couples. Lil’ Willis is signed up for the trios category with two fellow Midnight Rollers.

Big Willis will be competing in the men’s dual-trick category with Master Roller James “Big Jim” Allen, who’s famous for stunts like leaping over motorcycles or rows of folding chairs on skates in the 1970s. The duo, along with a few dozen other competitors, wear Asics bibs with participant numbers attached to their shirts with safety pins. They’ll compete against three other pairs, all local skaters who know each other’s moves without necessarily knowing each other’s names.

“I may not know all these names, but I know all these faces,” says Gigi Thomas, 48, a longtime skater who worked the register at Alexandria until it closed. “And I can match every face to that person’s shadow on skates. It’s like a thumbprint—it’s that individual.”

One competitor, 24-year-old Thomas “Flash” Paul of Baltimore, a floor guard at Shake N Bake, knows a little more about Big Willis.

Paul’s mother, Aubrenda Green, heads the M.A.D. Unity skate club; he’s part of another one, called the Dream Team. Paul says he’s seen Willis skate. Willis’ long, fluid foot strokes, he says, were born in rinks “the size of an airport hangar.” Paul’s from a younger generation, trained in smaller spaces; his own skating, full of snaps and spins, marks his age as much as his style.

“When I see him at Temple Hills, I’ll catch myself watching him when he does a split or a drop,” Paul says of Big Willis. “He doesn’t miss a beat.”

Just who comes out on top this evening will be up to a panel of accomplished skaters serving as judges. They’ll rate performances based on a variety of factors, from footwork to crowd appeal. For the dual-trick category, judges look for whether pairs are skating in unison and in rhythm with the music; whether they’re holding hands, which makes most moves more difficult; and the difficulty of the tricks attempted.

But for all the competition, history and nostalgia hang heavy. Tasha Klusmann, the wife of one of tonight’s judges and an unofficial historian of the sport, says the competition is a throwback to style skating’s earlier days, when she and her husband, Norbert, used to skate with a group called Wheels of Fortune. Tasha says she knew of Norbert before she met him—a huge portrait of him and his skate partner hung in the entrance to Alexandria to honor their first-place finish in the 1981 Rock-N-Roller Skating $20,000 Dance Contest, one of the last nationally sanctioned roller-skating competitions open to style skaters.

Tasha says 22-year-old Norbert, whose skate name is “Smooth,” was hanging in the center of the rink, “surveying his kingdom,” when some friends introduced her to him.

“He didn’t even look down his nose at me,” says Tasha, who was 12 at the time. Tasha was invited to join the Wheels of Fortune at 14. She spent her 16th birthday crying because she couldn’t perfect a lift with him.

Tasha and Norbert, now 53, eventually mastered the lift, in which he holds her above his head with one hand. They went on to perform it at events such as the 1984 and 1985 Cherry Blossom Parades, the opening of the Old Post Office Pavilion in 1983, and even as extras in Roll Bounce, the 2005 style-skating movie starring Bow Wow. They married when Tasha was 21 and Norbert was 31. And like the Eppses, they had their daughter skating almost as soon as she could walk, hoping to pass on the family legacy to a new generation.

Did it take? Their daughter Nyasha went off to college in California with a pair of skates with her. But Tasha says she’s not sure how often they get used. “It’s something she can put away for a few years and come back to whenever she needs it,” Tasha says.

Old-timers like Big Willis will tell you that today’s roller-skating palaces are hardly worth the name. These days, D.C. style skaters flock to Seabrook Skating Center in Lanham or the Temple Hills Skating Palace on Branch Avenue in Temple Hills, where Willis, Lynette and Lil’ Willis often skate on Thursday nights. Each has roughly a third the old rinks’ capacity. There are no rinks left in the District.

“They’re like little matchboxes,” Big Willis says.

“Imagine taking ballroom dancers out of the ballroom, and putting them on a little square stage,” says Norbert Klusmann. “There was a grandeur to those old rinks, and when they closed, that got lost.”

That history—the kind that’s lost to much of the world, as well as the part of it that has defined Klusmann’s life—is in fact the story of recent African-American history. Take all those distant cities the Master Rollers bus has cruised to over the years: There’s a different skate culture in each of them, one that springs from chunks of history that might be familiar to people who have no idea what a dual-trick competition is.

Roller skating has been around for more than a century, starting with affluent, white crowds waltzing on wheels to organ music at the first skating rinks, Tasha Klusmann says. Skating didn’t become commonplace in black communities until years later, when roller skates became widely affordable, and paved streets and sidewalks gave kids somewhere to use them, she says. But even then—Washington’s big rinks opened in the late 1940s—segregation forced black skaters to roll on the streets, in church basements, in party rooms and other non-traditional venues.

As it happened, this was about the same time records became widely available. So people skated to the sound of local R&B music—mostly local acts unique to each city. Those local acts created each city’s distinct style, which persist in black communities throughout the country today, long after rinks integrated, boomed, and finally began to disappear: Up-tempo club anthems gave New Yorkers their bent-knee, bouncy moves; Chicago’s J.B. style, known for its show-stopping tricks, got its name from the James Brown music that created it; D.C. favored the kind of slow jams played on the legendary Howard University Radio program, “The Quiet Storm,” which lent itself to the fast, smooth, and straight-up style the city’s skaters are still known for.

“Segregation forced creativity,” Tasha Klusmann says. “Style skating happened because of segregation, both in terms of venue and music.”

Kalorama integrated in 1957. Since it was one of the first rinks in the region to do so, it became a hotbed of black culture and community. “What integration really meant was that the whites left, and the blacks came in,” Tasha Klusmann says. “Kalorama was such a huge, fine facility that blacks from all over the East Coast came here to skate.”

Big Willis’ skating career began the same year Washington erupted into riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He moved here shortly after the rioting, arriving in a city where anxiety still ruled. Against that backdrop, he says, Kalorama seemed like a sanctuary. “U Street was already tore up by the time I got here,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do about that. All I knew was to skate.”

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?”

Local skaters started to volunteer memorabilia, from photos of historic rinks to glittery old costumes. As word spread to skaters elsewhere, the collection went national. Style skating memorabilia began arriving by mail almost daily.

Once a week or so, Klusmann brings a box or two to Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Items from the archive were recently displayed at the California African American Museum. The archive is also featured in the 2006 National Geographic book “Legacy: Treasures of Black History.”

Klusmann has recorded more than 100 interviews with style skaters—all on her own time, at her own expense. She has become accustomed to raised eyebrows and dismissive glances when she talks about the project, especially at black-history events.

“People don’t think of it as being significant or relevant,” Klusmann says. “But when you point out that generations and generations of people are preserving a community that came out of segregation, that says something important about our country’s social history, people say, ‘Wow. Now I see it.’”

The importance of gathering such information is heightened by the fact that style-skating’s “elders,” who remember when skating represented an affirmation of their culture and community, aren’t going to be around forever. Honey Boy died of heart disease in 2006. At about every skate party, there seems to be a table memorializing another legendary skater’s passing.

“People talk about how oral history is big within the black community,” Klusmann says. “But when oral history is all you’ve got, and you’re not recording the memories, what happens when people pass is that you lose their first-person story. That’s what we’re trying to save.”

It’s about 3:30 a.m. when Big Willis and Jim receive their own “pioneers of style skating” award—and, of course, their first-place trophy from the dual-trick competition. Then they treat the crowd to another quick performance before taking off their skates and heading home.

The ride home on the Master Rollers bus is quiet. Some skaters sleep. Others, like Big Willis, sit quietly. Most will arrive home around 6 a.m., nap for a couple hours, then wake up and start their days. Tasha and Norbert will be up in time to make breakfast for Nyasha and their 15-year-old son, Norbert Jr., before church.

“When I was coming up, the rule was, if you slept all day and let something go after a skate party, you couldn’t go anymore,” Tasha says. “That’s still my rule today.”

Gigi Thomas, who arrives home in Lanham around 6:30 a.m., takes a shower, then rounds up her three kids, aged 5, 8, and 10, to head to her niece’s baptism in Woodbridge. “My sisters and my mom knew I went to a late skate the night before, and my nieces and nephews had a lot of fun knowing their 48-year-old aunt stayed out ’til 5 a.m., as if she was 18 again.”

Big Willis will spend most of Sunday working. But he’ll be on skates again by Thursday, when he and Lil’ Willis meet at Branch Avenue to skate with the third generation, Willis III, Lil’ Willis’ 15-year-old son. “It goes from generation to generation,” Big Willis says. “After I finish, my son will take over. After he finishes, his son will take it over.”

Willis III isn’t into competitions, formal or informal, and it’s unclear how far he’ll go in the sport. But for now, people say he’s the spitting image of his father and his grandfather on skates, fluid and smooth whether he’s making casual revolutions or dropping into a shoot-the-duck that would make his grandfather proud.

“I’ll be watching him when I can’t skate anymore,” Big Willis says. “But that will be a while.”