The mirrored disco ball still hangs above the roller-skating rink at Wooddale Fun Zone, but the scene today is a far cry from the late 1970s, when "Stayin' Alive" pulsed from the DJ booth and crowds of teens circled the floor on Friday nights.
Skating is regaining popularity, but this time, it appeals to the whole family. On a recent Saturday afternoon, seven long tables in the concession area were packed with birthday parties and the oval rink was full of skaters, many of them kids.
Tween girls rolled by in bunches, exchanging whispers and laughs. A dad who must have played hockey skated backward, pulling two wobbly children by their hands. A mom in a white spangled poncho danced as she skated, swaying her hips to a Bruno Mars song.
Roller skating rinks were popular when I was in junior high and high school. The Twin Cities had 14 of them in the early 1980s, according to Kevin Sahly, whose family opened the rink in Woodbury in 1974. They also run the Roller Gardens in St. Louis Park.
"That was really our heyday," said Sahly. "It was more than round-and-round skating. You had people who were really getting down and dancing out there."
But skating couldn't compete with other leisure activities, and only five rinks are left in the Twin Cities. Still, there are signs that skating might be staging a comeback. Wooddale is full of families, church groups, bar mitzvahs and birthday parties.
"We've been to Chuck E. Cheese so many times, you know what I'm sayin'?" said Wanda Whyte of Oakdale, who was celebrating her grandson's third birthday at Wooddale. "So this was something fun and different." She was watching aunts, uncles, cousins and friends skating and laughing on the floor. Her 12-year-old granddaughter had just won the hula-hoop contest.
"We're on an upswing for sure over the past couple of years," Sahly said. "I think the economy has been a big help. We're trying to keep this really affordable for the average family. It's also something all ages can do. It's a lifetime activity."
The popularity of the Minnesota RollerGirls league hasn't hurt, and neither have advertisements for iPods featuring skaters or an Evian commercial of babies on skates.
"I'm seeing kids maybe 8, 9 or 10 saying, 'I want to do those new kinds of skates, the ones with the four wheels,' " Sahly said.
I turned 44 this week and know I shouldn't risk physical injury the way I did when I was younger, but I still asked for inline skates at the rental counter. The four boys, ages 9 through 12, also asked for inline skates, and after they snapped on the hard plastic boots, they stepped off the carpet and glided onto the floor, a little shaky, but upright.
"It's just like ice skating, except it's harder to turn," said my 12-year-old son. "It's still easy though."
It was my first time on inline skates, and I hugged the cinder-block wall. When I finally pushed off across a small section of floor called "beginners' lane," I could not keep the skates under me. I assumed they would behave like ice skates. They did, until I tried to stop by swiveling my feet and digging the edge of my nonexistent blades into the nonexistent ice.
My feet flew up and I crashed to the floor. I was convinced I had broken every bone in my knees. When I could move again, I tried tentative laps on the main oval floor, but the skates were rubbing blisters on my feet. I sheepishly limped back to the counter and asked if I could exchange my inline skates for regular roller skates, what they call "quads."
I guess I am a retro girl.
From then on, it was a load of fun. I skated hypnotic loops with my friend, who had sensibly started on regular roller skates. We chatted and half listened to the music, everything from Beatles to clean versions of the Black Eyed Peas.
The 12-year-old boys seemed to think they were in a roller derby. Their goal was to lap the mother team and sneak up between us. If they bumped us, so much the better.
Our 9-year-old sons were in their own worlds, working on their moves. For a while, my 9-year-old skated on the inner ring, trying to cross his feet like an Olympic speed skater. After one tight turn, he skated alongside me. "Did you see me? I was leaning over so far I could touch the floor!"
He fell once and I wished I had brought his helmet. I saw only two kids wearing them. I think they'd be a good idea.
My friend and I also admired the graceful skaters, like Kiamare McEwen, 53, of Woodbury, who skated in her own black skates with gold pompoms. Her upper body remained almost motionless while her hips and legs swung out from side to side in leisurely rhythm like the weight in a grandfather clock.
She said she used to skate at the Dustbowl in St. Paul "That's where I started. If you fell and you got up, your clothes were dusty. My mom would take us there every Saturday."
McEwen said she had gotten back into skating only recently, sometimes going three times a week for several hours at a time. She has lost 22 pounds. Sometimes she brings her 13-year-old daughter and her mother, and three generations skate together.
"It's really fun," she said. "I put on my headset and I listen to Christian music. I find it to be very relaxing. You can feel the energy in the room. The floor is full of kids and that energy keeps me going."
When she saw me again on the floor, she yelled out encouragingly, "You're looking good!"
My friend and I were also transfixed by a young guy in jeans and a white T-shirt who wove through the rest of us like an Olympic skater. He threaded his way around falling children, skated backward, spun circles and flew by on one foot while squatting and holding his other leg straight in front of him. There wasn't a bit of bravado, just joy and grace.
When he rolled off into the carpet, I stumbled after him and found out he was Kim Chang, 27, of Woodbury.
"I love seeing the younger kids doing this," he said, gesturing to the rink.
He was there to attend his 14-year-old nephew's birthday party, and he said he learned to roller blade along the Mississippi River and through downtown St. Paul, where he discovered he likes skating up hills, backward.
I asked for tips.
"Focus on your center," he said. "Wherever your center is, that's where you're going to go. And bend your knees."
My group skated for two hours, and by the time we left, my center felt like it had been through a Pilates workout. The kids didn't want to leave the rink. On the drive home, the 12-year-olds calculated how much each sixth-grade family would have to chip in to rent the rink for a party. When we got home, my 9-year-old collapsed on the couch and fell asleep.
When he woke up he said, "It's funny, I wasn't tired at all while I was skating. It felt like I could have skated all day."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Roller skating at Wooddale Fun Zone
Where: 2122 Wooddale Drive, Woodbury
Information: 651-735-6214 or wooddalefunzone.com
Hours: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $6 admission, $3 skate rental (additional charge for indoor play structure and game arcade)
Target audience: Anyone who fondly remembers disco on wheels or who just wants some multiage, physical fun.
Crowd pleaser: Watching people
Avoid: Speed skating
Tip: Regular roller skates are more stable and easier to learn on than inline skates.
Specials: Monday is super bargain night from 6 to 8 p.m. with $1 admission to the roller rink, $3 skate rental and $1 pizza slices; Wednesday is $5.50 admission and $3 rental with free slice of pizza and a soda.
More: Read previously published Family Outings at MinnMoms.com/outings.
OTHER METRO ROLLER SKATING CENTERS
Where: 3075 Coon Rapids Blvd., Coon Rapids
Info: 763-427-8980 or cheapskatecr.com
Where: 1818 Gervais Court, Maplewood
Info: 651-770-3848 or www.saintsnorth.com
THE ROLLER GARDEN
Where: 5622 W. Lake St., St. Louis Park
Info: 952-929-5518 or rollergarden.com
Where: 201 S. River Ridge Circle, Burnsville
Info: 952-890-0988 or skateville.com