Some parents are taking their children to the very same Friday Family Roller Skate Night in North Seattle they grew up with decades ago. The event is like a time capsule, and just as much fun all these years later.
There’s nothing cool about Friday Family Roller Skate Night.
The lights never dim. There’s no sexy music or corners for making out. Parents can’t just drop their kids off; they have to stay the whole time, either perched on the pull-out wooden bleachers of the Broadview-Thomson K-8 School gym or laced up in a pair of rental skates and making the rounds themselves.
But it’s not just the lights, the music, the games and the round-and-round that make skate night something special. The weekly event captures a certain time in a kid’s life: that sweet spot between childhood and teendom, when you can still grab the hand of your younger neighbor and guide them around the floor, or circle around alone, aloof. Old enough, now, to go it alone — even if you are just a few blocks from home and your mom is in the stands.
No one knows exactly when skate night started, sometime in the early Eighties. Sponsored by the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, it has been a school-year staple long enough for parents to walk in with their kids and remember coming here at the same age. It hasn’t changed.
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The price, too, is a bit of a throwback: $4 for entry and rental skates, which are drab and beige, but well broken-in. Head into the gym, filled with the sound of “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon” or “Roar” by Katy Perry, lace up, clomp in and roll away.
In a city where change is a constant, where history and a sense of place can be knocked down in a day, skate night has survived, allowing another generation of Seattleites to learn how to move around on eight wheels, get their bearings and find not just their rhythm, but their place just beyond home and the classroom, and the sure-footedness to face whatever may come.
“I always say this is Seattle’s best-kept secret,” Diana Boyd said as she laced up her skates one recent Friday night on one of the pull-out wooden bleachers.
Over in the corner, fellow longtime volunteer Lloyd Leitch was sitting on a folding chair in front of the portable sound system blasting “Let It Go,” from “Frozen.”
“Turn it down,” Boyd called over to him.
She looked up from her laces: “I teach school. I’ve had my fill of Elsa and Anna.”
Boyd has been skating since she was 5, and spent her childhood skating six hours straight on Fridays and Saturdays at the local skating rink.
“It kept me out of trouble when I was a kid,” she said.
She started coming to skate night at this spot — formally called the Bitter Lake Community Center Annex — with her kids. When they grew out of it, she kept coming — and later joined a group of adults who go to the 21-and-over skate at the Lynnwood Bowl & Skate on Mondays and Thursday nights.
“It’s my movement,” she said of skating. “Everybody’s got a movement they love to do.”
It is the same for Leitch, a mail carrier who also came to skate night with his kids 14 years ago and never stopped.
“I would have done it longer if I had known it was here,” he said. “It’s good old American fun. As tired as I am when I come here at night, it’s a joy to see people having fun.”
So what is it about skating? Why has this night, skate night, lasted so long?
“People like movement,” Leitch said. “It’s the music and moving around. Two things that go together.”
He used to run, but his knees couldn’t take it. Then he swam until his favorite pool closed. Then he came to skate night.
“I wanted to get exercise and despite what people think about carrying the mail, it’s not the same kind of exercise, and it’s not much fun,” he said. “My kid and my wife didn’t get it. But it became my thing. Skating became my thing.”
He had been coming to skate night for a few years when one of the other volunteers asked him to come a little early to help. They pulled out the bleachers together, and then Leitch grabbed a broom and started sweeping the floor.
“It’s a major safety issue,” he said. “Little things get caught in the wheel. So that was my job. That’s always been my passion, keeping the floor clean.”
“So when’s the last time you strapped on a pair of skates?”
“Keep your feet flat and all eight wheels on the floor,” Dona Ely was saying. “That’s so you don’t press on your toe and your heel like when you’re walking.
“Straight, knees bent, feet flat. Keep your arms still and try to keep your body out of the way. Control the skate with your foot.”
Ely has been teaching roller skating since 1985, everywhere from the Lynnwood Rollaway to Skateland in Bremerton. She came to skate night years ago after a student told her about it, took one look at the place and knew it needed her. Her music. Her games. Her rules.
“I told them I could organize it better and started doing a little lesson in the middle of the session and the session grew.”
It grew so much that the school opened an adjacent gym where Ely teaches about a dozen kids for an hour before the skate night doors open.
“Squat down without altering the weight on your skate. Up a little bit, then down. I would hold your hand while you do it — not hold you up. Just stabilize you.”
Ely is in her 80s but looks 20 years younger. She is slim and tall, perfectly made up with short, coifed hair, a quick smile — and even quicker arms to catch the children who clomp around her, eager to show off.
“I do little games that test them,” she said. “But they are not competing against their peers, they are competing against themselves.”
Once skate night begins, Ely heads next door, where she sits behind a sound system with a current copy of “Now That’s What I Call Music” — she records the CD onto a tape — and runs the show.
At 6:30 p.m., the floor starts to fill up. Ely lets everyone skate around for a while, maybe makes a few announcements about rules, and then at 7:05, she has everyone circle up for the Hokey Pokey. She has a tape for that, too. An oldie but goodie.
There’s a candy giveaway with numbers and little slips of paper, “and then they need to do something more, because they get bored,” Ely said.
That’s when she announces the Girls Skate. The Boys Skate. Opposite direction. Backward skate.
“The magic of skating is all the muscles in your body and your brain that you have to use,” she said. “Anyone who learns to skate can do any other athletic thing better. It helps to develop the brain.”
Ely has been teaching so long that she is teaching her students’ children.
“I have kids that have come in and competed for me and they go off and have a family and bring their daughter back,” she said.
Ely has coached a competitive dance-skating team out of Marysville and has taken teams to the Nationals about 20 times, but has never been to the Pan Am Games. She could never afford to go.
Ely started skating at age 5 on the sidewalks of Laurelhurst. Her father was a professor at the University of Washington. In high school, a boy named Louren asked her on a date, but she wouldn’t go out with him until he asked her to go roller skating. They went to the The Ridge Rink (“The one in Ballard that had the organ on the floor”).
They married and had four children, three of whom became competitive skaters.
“They owe their lives to roller-skating,” Ely said of her children. “I worked at the rink, I taught there, and the kids all worked at the rink at one time or another.”
After Louren died in 1980, Dona Ely never remarried.
But she kept teaching, and skating.
“I roll around. I don’t call it skating,” she said. “I have arthritis in my knee from too much Shoot the Duck. That’s when you squat all the way down and push one leg out front.
“I’m pretty supple, but you know, age catches up with you.”
Not at skate night, though. Age never seems to catch up with it.
The “Skate Cop”
Curt Nakon is going to warn you; this is not the skate night you may remember from when you were growing up. There’s no low lighting and Couples Skate. No one is going to cop any feels against the wall, or sneak a kiss while you wait for your ride.
“The lights will stay on the whole time,” Nakon tells you. “It’s not sexy in any way. It’s for kids. The parents have to stay. And really, teenagers would hate it. It’s that lame. There are no cool cats here.”
Much as he played the night down, it’s clear Nakon loves it. Like Boyd and Leitch, he started coming to skate night with his kids. When they grew up and over it, he kept coming back on his own.
“I know,” he cracked. “A 57-year-old guy skating on a Friday night at a middle school. But I’m a ‘Ride the Ducks’ tour guide and trainer. I have no shred of dignity left.
“But it’s just the skating. I love skating. It’s great exercise.”
A few months ago, one of the other volunteers tossed him a red vest with “SKATE STAFF” on the back. He was official: a “Skate Cop.”
Nakon is a big guy but rounds the room in a matter of seconds, a helmet on his head, a constant smile on his face, full of one-liners and always looking out for the slow kids, the struggling kids, the ones turning in the wrong direction.
For a while, Nakon taught skating at the Northwest Skate Alliance, and was on his way to becoming a certified skate instructor. But life caught up, and now he’s here on Friday nights, making the rounds, helmet, wrist guard and all. And smiling.
The mother and daughter
They were in the car when a friend of Lynette Hobbs’ son said he was going to Friday Night Skate at the Bitter Lake Community Center.
“‘No way,’” Hobbs remembered thinking. It was the same event she attended almost 40 years ago as a student at Viewlands Elementary, then Whitman Middle School.
“I had no idea they were still doing it 30, 40 years later,” Hobbs said. “It’s so funny.”
Not long after, she drove her 11-year-old twins, Wyatt and Sadie, to skate night and followed as they paid their $4 and walked into the gym. The place was a time capsule.
“It’s exactly the same,” Hobbs said. “I swear some of those skates are still the same skates we rented. The only difference is the music. If they had played some Pat Benatar? That ‘Hit Me With You Best Shot’ song? Then I would have been right back there.”
Hobbs learned to skate in her driveway in the 1970s, when skating was “the thing to do.” When she found out about skate night, she was there.
“I can’t believe they still do it,” she said. “So many things have evolved. Kids have phones now and all these electronics. But they love this, and now we have something in common from our youth, which is kind of rare.”
Will she ever lace up herself?
“Me? No,” she said. “I’m not very coordinated in my old age.”
But her daughter, Sadie, loves it.
“I like it because me and my best friend, like, make up a skating routine,” Sadie said. “We hold hands and we switch sides and I especially like the Hokey Pokey. It’s really fun.
“Sometimes I fall. But I am committed.”