[Editor’s note: Liner Notes chronicles how Chelsea Schlievert Yates discovered music through the ’80s and ’90s while growing up in Norfolk, Neb. We hope to post a new installment every other week. Read more here.]
by Chelsea Schlievert Yates
In 1989, I made a promise to Richard Marx.
In the late 1980s, when Richard’s voice came across the speakers at Norfolk’s H&P Rollerland during couples’ skates, he would urge us sixth graders to hold on to the nights, to hold on to the memories. As we nervously held hands and skated around the rink with members of the opposite sex, I did as Richard asked. And I vowed never to forget.
If you grew up in northeast Nebraska in the late 1980s, there’s a good chance you passed through the Rollerland’s doors. You likely skated on its rink and drank its “suicides,” the soft drink concoction created by mixing all of the sodas on tap. If you frequented it on Friday nights while you were in the sixth grade as I did, I bet there’s a good chance that you, too, have held onto the memories that were created on its glow-in-the-dark paint-covered rink floor.
But I actually didn’t enjoy roller skating all that much. I was slow, clumsy, and awkward on wheels. I had a difficult time keeping my balance, and I fell down easily. I would watch the good skaters in awe — the kids who could skate fast, backwards, or both, or crouched on one leg, kids who were able to turn with ease, and do the limbo. But I had to look past all of that because, according to the rules of cool that had been established among my classmates, the Rollerland was the place to be on a Friday night.
Let’s be honest: Sixth grade was a weird time to be a kid. Our pre-pubescent bodies were beginning to change; the next few years would bring with them hormones, growth spurts, acne, mood swings, visits from “Aunt Flo,” body hair and feelings we’d have no idea what to do with. In a way, a night at the H&P was like a preview of what to expect. The rollercoaster of emotions I’d experience in an evening of skating — anxiety, joy, jealousy, frustration, attraction — would come to be a daily occurrence for me in junior high. And against the backdrop of pop songs that dominated the skating rink’s sound system, I learned to lean on music as a way to endure.
My Rollerland experience seemed to have about three components that made it magical: 1. no parental supervision, 2. the couple’s skate and 3. the music.
As there were usually no parents present (the only adults being behind the counter at the skate rental or concession booth), the skating rink offered a taste of freedom to many of us. For me, this meant that I was free to be silly and giggle with my friends without being told to quiet down by my parents. Since my sister and brother weren’t old enough to attend Friday night skates, it also meant that I could escape them for a few hours. And I could also eat all the Peachie-Os and gummy bears I wanted. No one would be there to stop me.
Additionally, the skating rink was a space in which physical interaction with members of the opposite sex was not only accepted but encouraged, primarily in the form of the “couple’s skate.” By the fifth grade, my classmates had started “going out” with each other — something that I hated having to explain to my mom because it was an embarrassing topic to discuss with parents, and I wasn’t always sure if I knew what it meant, anyway. (“Does it mean you’re boyfriend and girlfriend?” my mom would ask, or worse, “Is it like going steady?” The latter sounded so old-fashioned to me and made me think of the Leave it to Beaver reruns I’d sometimes watch after school.) In pre-teen terms, it meant, for me anyway, there was a boy in my class who I talked to more regularly than the others, who I sat next to at group outings to the movies or high school football games, who I occasionally chatted with on the phone (usually while at a friend’s sleepover), and, of course, with whom I skated during couples’ skates.
There was also the actual roller skating, which I’m sure a lot of kids enjoyed. But for me, it was the music that really kept me going. The H&P was the first place I remember where music was pumped out over speakers in such a way that I could literally feel rhythms and beats. The bass in my chest, a buzzing in my core, the power of a drum — the intense physical reactions I experienced were new and exciting, and I fell in love with feeling music. When coupled with black lights and the mirrored disco ball, the music transformed the environment, creating a magical atmosphere and mood. Even the cheesiest of pop songs just pulsed through me, their catchy hooks and melodies lending themselves perfectly to my pre-teen ears.
If you were there, you know the songs I’m talking about: those by Milli Vanilli, Taylor Dayne, Tiffany, Bon Jovi, Debbie Gibson, New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, Poison — songs by pop stars who graced the pages of the Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, and Big Bopper magazines we pored over at the time. In addition to internalizing their loudness, clap lines and rhythms, I also began to identify with their stories, laments and exuberance. When Tiffany expressed her (by way of Tommy James’s) frustration with adult supervision in “I Think We’re Alone Now,” I totally got it. When Bobby Brown claimed that he didn’t need permission to make his own decisions, I felt that, too. And when Whitney Houston confessed to getting “so emotional” every time she thought about the guy she had a crush on, it was as if she understood exactly how I felt.
Sung by performers who knew not only what I was going through but what tempo and beat should be used to best express it, the songs of the Rollerland spoke to all of my pre-teen emotions. I’ve often wondered why it is I can still recite all the lyrics to Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes” without missing a word but have trouble remembering the date of my best friend’s birthday. I guess those songs — their innocence and their catchiness — have roots that run deep within me. Blaring over the sound system, they were songs that moved in just when I needed them the most and took up permanent residence somewhere deep in my consciousness.
Sixth-grade Friday nights started out pretty much the same. Whosever parent was on “drop off” duty would endure the backseat chatter of 11-year-old girls while chauffeuring us to the skating rink. We’d open the car door, tumble out and head toward the Rollerland’s entrance. The music would be muffled until we opened the door. And then, like magic, we were greeted by the likes of Cher, Rick Astley and INXS.
I didn’t own a pair of skates, and so I had to rely on those available for rent at the rink. This was always risky. I’d hand over my money, say my size and pray that I got a decent pair in return — a set that had both stoppers intact and laces that weren’t frayed beyond the point of functionality.
The lights were lowered on Friday nights so that the black light and disco ball could take full effect. With skates in hand, we’d make our way through the dimness to a triangle-shaped seating area just off the rink to join other kids from our school. The air in that section was often laced with the scent of Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth, the perfume-of-choice for the girls in my class. We’d find a seat on the bench and put on our skates. After double-knotting my laces so as not to trip on them (something that had happened to me way too many times before), I would stuff my leftover money into my sock. I didn’t dare bring a purse out of fear it would be stolen. Why I didn’t use my jeans pockets, I don’t know.
We’d roll our shoes inside our coats and stuff them underneath the benches, hoping there was no gum stuck to the underside. Then it was time to hit the floor. I would wait until just the right song to make my entrance onto the rink. George Michael’s “Faith” and George Harrison’s “Set On You” were two particular favorites.
I always remained close to the rink’s felt-covered walls, which had laminated Peanuts characters stapled to them. Content to slowly wall-skate with my Georges as the good skaters whizzed by, I’d monitor my progression by the Snoopy character that appeared above my head. If I made it to Woodstock without tripping or falling, I was doing pretty good.
The deejay booth was in the opposite corner from where I’d started, and if I reached it without any spills, I’d reward myself by putting in a song request. “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from the Dirty Dancing movie soundtrack was always a crowd-pleaser, and who didn’t want to hear the Escape Club’s “Wild, Wild West”?
After a few laps, the deejay would announce that it was time for the couple’s skate. Upbeat songs like “Walk the Dinosaur” and Kylie Minogue’s version of the “Locomotion” would fade while ballads like “Hold on to the Nights” and “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” would fill the air. And butterflies, nerves, twinges and jitters all fluttered through my pre-pubescent self as I cautiously scanned the rink for Colby.
By sixth grade standards, Colby and I were definitely “going out.” I had talked to him once on the phone (he had called me, as my mom wouldn’t allow me to call boys) and had sat next to me at a school assembly. On Valentine’s Day, he had waited until the end of Computer Club, our after-school program on Wednesdays, to give me a small heart-shaped box of chocolates. And at the skating rink, he introduced me to the concept of chivalry. One time, after realizing that both of the rental skates on my feet were missing stop plugs, he offered to take care of it for me. I removed the skates and watched as he marched up to the rental counter in a huff and demanded a different pair, declaring that the pair I’d been given was “simply unacceptable.” Another time, after a hot shot skater pushed me down on the rink floor because I was going too slow, Colby and his best friend Nic set out to “teach the kid a lesson.” They were going to get him, I was promised, get him good. I don’t remember what happened, but whatever course of action they took must have been effective, as the boy didn’t bother me again.
In addition to the couple’s skate, there were other special skates: the snowball, the triple skate, the hokey pokey and the limbo (which I wasn’t good at, so it marked the perfect time for me to slip off the rink, pull a warm, moist dollar bill from my sock, and buy a refill on my suicide). The night always ended with the Number Game. Similar to musical chairs, kids skated while the deejay played music. At some point the music would stop abruptly, and skaters would scramble to grab a spot under a number on the wall. If the deejay drew your number, you were out. If you made it to the end, you won. I believe the prize was a free skate or soda for the next week, though I’m not entirely sure, as I never won the game.
Once a winner had been declared, the overhead lights were turned on. The deejay quit playing music, and just like that, everything came to an end. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness, I’d dig through the mounds of coats under the benches to retrieve my things. I’d often think of Cinderella as I removed my skates: once they were off, I would be back to my everyday shoes and my regular life of parents, babysitting my younger siblings, household chores, homework, and piano lessons. Heading to the front door, I’d notice that my feet and legs felt like they were still humming to the rhythm of skate vibrations and drum machines. And I’d join the other pre-teen skaters as we exited the building and spilled into the parking lot (which by that time was full of waiting parents), a giant mass of kids leaving the enchantment behind until the next Friday night.
Chelsea Schlievert Yates is a Hear Nebraska contributor. She grew up in northeast Nebraska and now lives in Seattle, Washington. Reach her at email@example.com.