Oregon Art Beat

Portland's Jam Skaters Dance On Wheels

By Cassandra Profita (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Feb. 7, 2020 6 p.m.

You could call it rhythm skating. It also goes by jam skating and rexing. Whatever you call it, this style of roller skating moves to a faster beat. It can even be a bit like breakdancing on wheels.


Once a week, you can find a diverse crowd of these skaters grooving to the beats of a live DJ at Oaks Park Skating Rink in Portland. Longtime skater Gary Scovell said Portland has it's own version of this style.

"Every city – Chicago, New York, San Francisco – everybody has their own style of skating," he said. "Our feet may be going in different directions, but we're all moving to the same beat."

Outside of the rollerskating community, though, this kind of skating can be a bit misunderstood.

“Everyone thinks it’s like roller disco with disco balls and flared jeans," said skater Noah Bowers. "They have no conception of what it really is.”

There's no routine or rules to follow, and competitions are few and far between.

“We’re not professionals. We don’t get paid," said skater Jon Keller. "We don’t get medals. We don’t look for them, either.”

Get Down And Boogie

When Scovell learned to skate in this style in the early 1980s, it was called rexing.

"It's done to the beat of the music," he said. "It's not your grandma and grandpa's organ music style. It's get down and boogie."

Keller remembers a different term when he was learning to skate back in the 1960s.

"In those days, it was called soul skating," he said. "Some called it rhythm skating, but we called it soul skating. Strictly from the soul."

Skater Ezell Watson has yet another name for the style of skating he likes to do.

“I’d say my style most closely resembles JB skating – James Brown skating," he said. "James Brown had what we call footwork.”

Watson learned to skate in Dallas after getting laid off from his job. He found a welcoming community at the local skating rink.

“I would always ask people: 'Am I doing this right?'" he said. "And people would say, 'There’s no handbook.' No! You learn the basics, and then you put your own panache on it, if you will.”

There are certain moves — like strolling — that a lot of skaters know and practice together. A stroll is a synchronized way of skating where a group of skaters will skate together around the rink while doing a series of steps.

"You’re all getting the same rhythm and it’s just beautiful,” Scovell said.

"We Didn't Have White Or Black."


The jam skating style has roots in African American culture, and for Scovell, it opened the door to a new way of thinking about race.

In the early 1980s, he started skating at a rink in Milwaukie where Rodney "Doc" Titus gave rexing lessons and coached a whole team of skaters.

"He taught me how to do a 180 jump," Scovell said. "He was a fun guy to know, and he kind of changed my life. He’s an African American man, and I come from a family that may not feel the way I do now about African American people."

Scovell went on to start a club dedicated to bringing roller skaters of all races together.

“We were trying to organize something in Portland where we didn’t have the prejudice," he said. "We didn’t have white or black. We had cross-culture. We became the Kross-Kulture Rhythm Rollers.”

Watson, who is African American, said he has roller-skated in cities around the world — often at jam skating parties that bring hundreds of skaters together for all-night sessions — and he's noticed higher proportions of black skaters in every other city.

He said he's faced hurdles because of his race in Portland's skating community.

“But your love of skating – be it black, white, any color in between – your love of skating keeps you coming to the rink," he said. "Love has a way of breaking down barriers.”

Keller, who is also African American, said there are noticeably more white skaters than black skaters in Portland rinks, but for him that doesn't matter.

"We just skate," he said. "We’re rollers. It ain’t about your color. If you ain’t got a beat, come on over here and I’ll show you a beat.”

"We're Trying To Keep A Dying Thing Going."

Noah Bowers, 23, remembers having a skating rink by his house. But Hillsboro Skate World closed in 2014, and in 2018, Gresham Skate World closed its doors, too.

“I definitely would appreciate having more rinks around and more younger kids — or just anybody — more into roller skating,” he said.

His dad, Beau Bowers, organizes the 2Raw skating club, which was based at Gresham Skate World until it closed.

“I just worry about the skating situation," he said. "There’s a lot of rinks closing. We see it here in Portland, and you can see it across the country.”

At the final 2Raw skate party at Gresham Skate World, Beau Bowers told skaters the club wouldn't die when their home rink closed. Instead, they moved their home base to Oaks Park Skating Rink, one of the region's last remaining roller rinks.

"We’re trying to keep a dying thing going," Keller said. "It's pretty sad. We've had other rinks in Portland but it's boiled down to just two and now this one is leaving so we only have one left."

Scovell said the he's grateful for the 115-year-old Oaks Park Skating Rink.

"Some of the friends I’ve skated with for 35, 40 years are down here every Tuesday night," he said. "It makes my heart feel good to see how many people are down here and how many young people are coming in."

Many skaters at Oaks Park on Tuesday nights say roller skating has changed their lives in significant ways.

"I used to be a very shy person," Noah Bowers said. "Roller skating helped me get out of my comfort zone and just be able to have fun in front of everybody."

Others say skating has helped them avoid dangerous behaviors or addictive substances, helped them find hope and a healthy new social life after a divorce, job loss or even imprisonment.

"I don’t want this art form to die,” Watson said. “For me, I would say skating in this style and in this community represents everything that’s right with the world.”