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Freewheeling camaraderie in New York's Central Park

Central Park Dance Skaters Assn. members gather each Saturday for an afternoon of dance-skating in New York City’s Central Park.

The first time he entered the ring, he was intimidated.

Everyone inside was so agile, sashaying like artistes on wheels while dance music blared and passersby stared at the spectacle in the heart of Central Park.

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He slid his slender frame past the metal barriers. Then, he pushed off with one foot and began rolling.

That was five years ago, and Takashi Yoshizaki can still be found Saturday afternoons in the ring, where a hidden treasure comes to life most weekends on a stretch of pavement with the unfortunate name of Dead Road. This is where members of Central Park Dance Skaters Assn., a group whose common link is a love of dance-skating, gather to show off their footwork without worrying about cars, dawdling pedestrians, bicycles, dogs, lampposts or the crowds that jam the city's skating rinks.

"We're here to enjoy life and not put up with a lot of aggravation," the nonprofit association's president, Bob Nichols, announced through a microphone as he opened a Saturday skate session this month. "The business plan is having fun."

The DJ cranked up "Empire State of Mind," and the skating began, slowly at first and building into a crescendo as the afternoon wore on and more skaters arrived.

A muscular man wearing dark glasses and billowing purple harem pants balanced a large bottle of liquid on his head and did leisurely spins around the circle, as if in a trance. A sinewy man in black shorts performed a slow, smooth arabesque, then broke into fast-moving dance steps. A nimble woman darted, dipped, swayed and spun, flitting through the crowd like Tinker Bell.

Some skaters moved as couples, floating elegantly while intertwined like ballroom dancers. Others, like Yoshizaki, zigzagged through the slower skaters, sometimes spinning around to skate backward or hopping from one foot to the other as they showed off dance steps.

As the number of skaters swelled, so did the number of spectators, who watched the skaters go round and round as if hypnotized by the sight.

The association is marking its 20th year, but it has been a bittersweet anniversary. Last month, Lezly Ziering, who led the fight for the right to skate in Central Park, died at 82. He and Nichols cofounded the group in 1995, after battling obstacles to have the space set aside for the skate circle. Now, from mid-April to mid-October, volunteers arrive weekend afternoons to put the barricades in place, set up the DJ equipment and give skaters their weekly fix.

"It's one of the most diverse things you'll find in this city," said Yoshizaki.

There are skaters in their preteens and in their 80s. Some come dressed as if auditioning for "Saturday Night Fever" on wheels, with shiny tights, colorful makeup and elaborately coiffed hair. Others breeze past in T-shirts, baggy shorts and baseball caps.

They are slim, chubby, tall and short. There are lawyers, artists, business executives, entrepreneurs and retirees.

On the street, most might look like working stiffs weighted down by the headaches of daily life in the big city. Once they pass through the metal barriers and put on their skates, though, each one is transformed. Creaky knees, tired eyes, paunches and frowns give way to broad grins and the grace that comes from gliding in time to dance music.

Many, including Yoshizaki, learned to dance-skate from Ziering, a choreographer and performer whose license plate read SK8GURU. A tribute written by Nichols said Ziering studied under Martha Graham, Bob Fosse and other luminaries and performed internationally, sharing stages with Gene Kelly, among others.

But Ziering's greatest gift, friends say, was his effort to keep roller-skating alive in New York City as the disco era faded and venerable skating venues closed.

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Robin Ostrow, a TV makeup artist, remembered skating at places like Metropolis in the 1980s, with its hardwood floors and pumping music. "It was like this magical place. People who went there will tell you it was the greatest time of their lives," Ostrow said.

"But this is even better," she said as skaters zipped around her. "It's black, it's white, it's Latin. We have this great camaraderie."

Lynna Davis, clad in shiny gold tights and a short green dress, grew up in Detroit and used to sneak out of her house at night to go roller-skating. Her parents thought the rinks drew the wrong kind of crowd, but Davis thought otherwise, and she still does.

"The good outweighs anything else," said Davis, a dancer, echoing other skaters who said there are few pastimes that are as healthy and affordable and that draw such diverse crowds.

"It's the sense of freedom you get once you're out there — the passion," she added, spreading her arms wide as the music blared. "You just get to let it all go."

The ring is open to anyone who wants to skate, or not. Some people cluster in the center alongside the DJs, who volunteer their services. Others dance without skates in a designated area out of the path of those on wheels.

It is a freewheeling atmosphere, but that belies the effort that goes into keeping the circle going. Nichols depends on volunteers to drag the metal barriers into place and to make sure the sound system is ready for the 2:45 p.m. start. There are strict rules to prevent falls and collisions.

"How old are you?" Nichols asked one boy who was speeding past the others. He made the boy put on a helmet, a state law for skaters 14 and under. Then he ordered him to slow down, noting that the circle is not intended for speedskaters.

Nichols admits to being concerned about the future. The association has about 80 members who pay annual dues of $25 or more. Nonmembers also donate, but money is tight. The association has no corporate sponsors, and that's the way most members want to keep it.

"What I would like to see is a new generation who could take over," said Nichols, who is 68.

As he spoke, his eyes darted to three young men wobbling like newborn fawns on rented skates as they navigated the circle. Nichols approached the trio and led them to a quiet corner, where he gave them a personal skating lesson to bolster their confidence and keep them from falling.

After about 20 minutes of instruction, the three rolled off into the circle, still awkward but no longer outsiders.

Twitter: @tinasusman

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