The Austin Chronicle


A Million Lights Are Dancing and There You Are, a Shooting Star

By Sarah Hepola, May 11, 2001, Features

Like so many things, it began with Xanadu. Not the movie, but the soundtrack, which you purchased six months ago and couldn't stop listening to, couldn't stop dancing to, couldn't stop singing at the least appropriate times: "I'm Al-aaaay-ive. Al-aaaaay-ah-ee-ay-ay-aaay-ive."

"This is the greatest soundtrack ever written!" you tell anyone who will listen, not really believing it, but kind of believing it because, "Xanadu, your neon lights will shine/For yooou, Xan-ah-doo-ooh-ooh."

The songs wriggle into your subconscious, and kick-start a fantasy. Although it is vague on most points, the fantasy is specific about the following: There are cute boys, there are blowing fans, and you are a roller-skating goddess.

Your good friend knows a skating rink out on Burnet Road. You both were still Girl Scouts when roller skating fell from grace, but the memories are clear enough. You remember the teens in tiny terrycloth shorts, pairing up when the lights went down to skate under the scattered starlight of the disco ball. You remember the birthday parties in the hottest part of summer, driving in a wood-paneled station wagon to the roller rinks on the edge of Dallas, sweating as you entered the big white barns that were so dark, so cool inside.

You drive to Playland on a sunny Saturday afternoon, slathered in glitter and listening to Xanadu, "Our love/Couldn't go wrong/How could I know/I was only dreaming?"

"We are going to rule that place!" you both say.

"We are going to rock!"

And maybe you were both being a tad ambitious, because when you arrive at Playland, whose entrance is lined with pastel wooden bunnies, you realize that standing up in skates is a far more reasonable goal for the day than ruling over the minions. Out on the rink, the little kids on roller skates mouth the words to the latest J-Lo song. Teens and a handful of adults on in-line skates swoosh around the slowpokes (show-offs ...). Meanwhile, you clutch the short, short guardrail and scoot along.

When you've made it around once without holding on, congratulate yourself. All that's left to learn now is how to turn left, turn right, how to speed up and slow down, how to start, and how to stop. By the way, how do you stop? Consider the orange rubber thingies, like big erasers on the tips of your skates: They are here to help you. But you would do better correcting mistakes on the world's largest thesis paper than using them to stop. Whenever you do, it sends your whole body hurtling forward into a desperate, grabbing lunge for the nearest steady object: the rusty railing, the musty carpet, the toddler wearing bunny ears.

You laugh out loud when this happens, make eye contact with the half-pints, shaking your head like you are too crazy.

Most ignore you. Some roll their eyes.

Every time you seem to get the hang of this, the skates scurry out from under you, causing your imitation-of-a-drowning-man move. "Oh fuh-rrdge! Oh shee-ack!" you say, because the place is crawling with kiddies. Your ankles hurt. Your calves throb. Why is roller skating so hard?

Take a breather. Notice the mounted televisions lining the perimeter of the rink. Get way too excited. Imagine a Xanadu multimedia explosion: the movie playing on the TVs, while the music plays in the background -- all while you are roller skating! This is too much. Imagine simple video feeds of the skaters, spinning and smiling for the camera, or a Zoo TV-type montage of the world's biggest despots.

Ask the guy behind the counter what the televisions are for.

"Oh those? Umm, yeah. Those are for Bingo."

Once every half-hour, the lights go down, and red, green, and blue police lights swivel in the dark. The neon signs pulse on and off. It's no disco ball, but you guess it's cool.

Days later, after the humiliation has faded, consider that roller skating might not be for you. Consider that the roller-skating fantasy might be better left ... a fantasy. And yet sometimes, when you are driving at fast speeds with your hand out the car window, you are thinking about the giant oscillating fans, you are thinking about Olivia Newton John's lilt and sway in the greatest roller-skating story ever told ... "Have to believe/We are magic." And you are thinking that quitters never win and winners never quit, and no one learned to roller skate in a day.

You and your friend decide to try your hand at Adult Night. Adult Night sounds perfect, because there will be no smug child prodigies, only people like you. People who haven't rollerskated in years, because no one your age has roller skated in years. Right?

Okay, you are wrong. There is a group of people, and they have spent the past decade roller skating, and they go to Adult Night regularly, and they are really, really good.

At least the music, you hope, will be better. As you enter, a song comes on: Mike Reno and Ann Wilson, "Almost Paradise."

You and your friend look at each other. "Ladies' Choice," you say at the same time.

Find the DJ. "Do you guys have Xanadu?"

"What?" he asks.

Your friend grows indignant. "Xanadu. Olivia Newton John. It's like the best rollerskating music ever."

"They don't sell that anymore," he says, and turns on "Ice Ice Baby."

You take a few shaky laps around the crowded rink. Notice that at Adult Night, people stare. Hairy men, in sweaty tank tops and tiny cutoffs. Begin to wonder if Adult Night might more appropriately be called "Singles Night." This is something you didn't quite appreciate on that sunny Saturday afternoon. To the little kids, you are nothing more than another grownup, a blind spot in their periphery. At Adult Night, you are fresh meat, and it is terrifying.

A man in Rollerblades sidles up beside you. Turn the other direction. He circles around and begins to skate backward, facing you. Look away! Look away!

If you don't exit the rink soon, you will surely wipe out, winding up in some humiliating body tangle with the backward-skater. But how to stop? You hatch an idea: If you run out of steam just at the edge of the rink, then you can roll gently onto the carpet, grab a hold of the pole, and halt all motion. Fashionable. Casual. Functional.

Except. You fail to slow yourself down sufficiently -- you are going too fast! -- and when your skates hit the carpet, they hitch and send you reeling forward once more. Your right hand slaps onto the pole, and your right leg hits the ground and begins to roll, so that you twirl in a circle around the pole, one leg extended.

Like a stripper.

You sit out the next few songs on the bench.

"The trick," your friend says, as you both watch everyone skate past, "is to find someone whose look you want. And then imitate them."

You look around the rink. A skinny middle-aged woman with a red headband and skin puckered from the tanning booth is pumping her fists up and down. Her eyes are closed as she sings along to the music -- "My anaconda don't want none/Unless you got buns, hon." A man on Rollerblades weaves in and out and into the middle, performing lutzes and other terms you learned from watching Olympic ice skating.

And then you see her. She is 50. Maybe 60, with long white hair pulled back into a ponytail and a baseball cap on her head. You're not sure why you like her so much, but it's something about the way she isn't just skating, she is dancing, swaying back and forth -- "You're on my mind/Girl I wanna shake you down" -- the way her eyes are empty and peaceful and not full of fear.

Take note. This is your rollerskating muse.

In the next 15 minutes, you learn a valuable lesson. The chances of your falling increase dramatically whenever you think the following things: "This is fun!" "Roller skating is easy!" "I'll bet I look pretty cute right now!"

Days later, after the humiliation has faded (again), consider that roller skating might not be for you. Consider that you could save yourself a whole heap of humiliation if you just stayed home and watched TV. Consider that sports are just not your thing, and while roller skating is not really a sport, it is sport-like (because you are bad at it). Consider that you hate doing things you are bad at.

Then pop in your motivational tape. Track six, your favorite: I'm al-aay-aay-ee-ay-ive. Consider that while you know little about life, your early 20s taught you this: Dreams never, ever come true while you're watching TV.

Return to Playland. A Saturday. The same Top 40 songs in a one-hour loop, the scampering kiddies, the voice on the intercom: "O-kay. Everybody in Jenny's party, report to the birthday table!"

You hobble out into the rink. You're still terrible. Just graceless. But you manage five or six laps without one backstroke-for-balance move. All around you, kids are wiping out. Tumbling onto the ground dramatically or sliding into the splits. Did this happen before? How come you didn't notice?

The room goes dark and the police lights start to swivel. For the first time, you notice the giant, silver roller skate hanging over the center. It is the most amazing thing -- a spinning, spangly, glitter deity. The flashing lights bounce off the giant glitterskate and ripple across the rink like moonlight.

You turn the corner, and your mind starts to drift. You begin to feel like you're running, the way you pump your arms and sort of crouch over, like you're so serious about all this. It's weird. You've never been able to run. You can walk for days, but something about running just never worked. It's not really a big deal, but you are thinking, as the air hits your sweaty neck and you are gliding past the people, who are just sitting and watching you glide, you are thinking that this is what running feels like. This is what the air feels like, this is the velocity. Your wheels rumble along and clack as you lift them up and down -- ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk -- in time with the music. You shake out your hands, which have been balled up into tight, clammy fists. You know what? This is fun. Roller skating is easy. You probably look pretty cute right ...

Whoooaa, sheee-ack! Fuh-ddrge! ... end story

After six trips to Playland Skating Center, Sarah Hepola can roller skate for over an hour. She still, however, cannot stop. Photographer Ada Calhoun took photos for the article ... while skating.

Fridays, May 11 and May 18, 9:30pm, the Alamo Drafthouse presents Mr. Sinus Theatre 3000. This month, MST3 performs their hysterical live comedy routine with the 1980 roller-skating classic Xanadu in a show appropriate for Xanadu fans and foes alike. $8 ($6.50 students). For more info, call 867-1839.

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