• Berlin
  • Elderskatesman & co: Berlin’s roller-skating originals


Elderskatesman & co: Berlin’s roller-skating originals

On the streets, squares and social media channels of Berlin, roller-skating is back in vogue. But behind millennials’ slick Instagram videos is a hardcore base of veterans who’ve been keeping the scene alive for decades.

Image for Elderskatesman & co: Berlin's roller-skating originals

Roller skating has experienced a renaissance in Berlin inspired by 29-year-old Oumi Janta. But a hardcore base of veterans have been keeping the scene alive for decades. Photo: James Huertas

On an average day I’d go to work, then up to the Neue Nationalgalerie to skate. Sometimes I’d even skate through the city holding my briefcase!” says Jürgen, who insists on going by his alias, Elderskatesman. Originally from south-west Germany, he is a retired mathematician with a great white beard – and an undying penchant for roller-skating.

At 69, Elderskatesman has witnessed Berlin’s roller-skating scene fluctuate in popularity over the past 40 years. Recently, a roller renaissance has taken off, inspired by 29-year- old Oumi Janta after a video she posted in June 2020 went viral. Showing off her impressive tricks on the sun-warmed asphalt of Tempelhofer Feld, Janta’s video got young, trendy Berliners frantically googling where to cop some new roller skates.

“I lived near KaDeWe,” Elderskatesman reminisces, describing how he first jumped on the roller-skating bandwagon in 1978 after moving to West Berlin to study. “I’d look at what was on sale. Then, suddenly, a pair of skates caught my eye and I thought, ‘If not now, when?’” And so began his decades-long addiction. “I’d always go to KaDeWe’s third- floor book department,” he says. To get there, he had to take the escalator then make his way through the porcelain department to get to the books in the far corner. “Staff were always saying, ‘Young man, you can’t skate through here!’” he laughs. “I was so casual about it but when I did look at the price tags on the porcelain one time, I realised some of them cost thousands.” It would only have taken one stumble… “So I started to take my skates off before going into KaDeWe.”

Huxley’s not-so-new Neue Welt

This bearded mathematician is part of a long-established crew of Berliners on wheels who laid the foundations for Berlin millennials’ new skating trend. Another one of these ‘old-schoolers’ is Oliver Radtke. After finishing his car-varnishing apprenticeship in Bremen, Radtke moved to West Berlin to join his brother, who was part of the 1980s skating scene. “He lived near Tempelhof and I’d often be around Hermannplatz. That’s where the skating scene was.”

Just around the corner was Huxley’s, home to the Roller Skate Center Neue Welt, which opened in 1985. Radtke, now 50, went there every weekend and even worked there between 1987 and 1989: “We’d go to the afternoon roller disco because it was cheaper than the evening one. Afterwards you’d be warmed up and want to keep skating. We’d skate in a group to Winterfeldtplatz and make a few stops on the way, eat, dance, drink and finish skating at the Gedächtniskirche.”

Having frequented roller discos all over Germany, Radtke was struck by the signature “Berlin-Ami” style he witnessed at Huxley’s, influenced by roller-skating’s roots in Black US culture. “In Bremen, there was a punk roller scene and a pop scene, in Ham- burg it was about American groove, R&B. But in Berlin it was totally different. There was lots of soul music and a different skating style. People wouldn’t skate in circles, it was more about dancing and acrobatics. Every city had its own direction.”

The 1990s saw a decline in Berlin’s roller scene. Rinks across Germany shut – including Huxley’s in 1990 – as the sport was overshad- owed by the rise of more modern inline skating. When the Wall fell, some Huxley’s regulars moved to the SEZ sports hall in Friedrichshain, previously the heart of the East Berlin skating scene. The closure of Huxley’s also emphasised the importance of Berlin’s few outdoor spots, like Schöneberg’s Winterfeldtplatz, which became a hub for roller-skaters.

But it was taken over weekly by a market full of stalls that threatened the square’s roller-friendly smooth surface with potholes and broken concrete. “We lodged a petition with the district office asking them to do something about the damaged concrete,” Elderskatesman remem- bers. “Then we actually got an invitation from the petition committee! We were four grown men and they were expecting 14-15-year-old kids, not us old grandads.” He still chuckles at the thought of their bold campaign, which successfully got the concrete repaired. “I can still see their faces when we walked into the hall. I’ll never forget that!”

Dad dons his skates

Image for Elderskatesman & co: Berlin's roller-skating originals

Elderskatesman, originally from south-west Germany, is a retired mathematician with a great white beard – and an undying penchant for roller-skating. Photo: James Huertas

When Radtke’s children were born, his skates were soon resigned to the basement of his Wilmersdorf house. Years later, it was thanks to his daughter that the old gang got back together. “It was 2003. I got my roller skates out and she saw me skating, saw what her old dad could do. She said, ‘Where did you learn that?! How does that work?’ I said, ‘Töchterchen, I can explain it badly or I can show you.’” Using the skills he’d learned while working at Huxley’s, Radtke made his daughter a pair of roller skates.

Wearing his dusty, 30-year-old skates, Radtke and his daughter joined outdoor skating events – and even bumped into his old friends from Huxley’s. “They said, ‘Hey, Oliver! Long time no see! Come visit us in Märkisches Viertel. There’s a hall where we skate regularly.’” The group, known as 8-zig, was founded in 2004 by Elderskatesman and three friends intent on keeping Berlin’s skate scene alive, and it’s still going strong today. “I went and there was 1970s and 1980s music playing,” Radtke recalls excitedly, “People who were [at SEZ] are also now part of 8-zig! Sometimes we still realise, ‘Ah, I saw you back as a kid in SEZ!’”

But some Berlin old-schoolers think the 8-zig crew has just been going around in circles since the 1980s. “They listen to the same music! ‘Rollll bouncee!’” cries Sascha Dornhöfer, singing the 1979 roller hit single ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll’ by Vaughan Mason & Crew. Dornhöfer, 51, is one half of Berlin’s self-proclaimed ‘Infamous Skating Couple’, together with his partner Alexandra Rothert, both of whom work as scientific consultants. “The 8-ziger do the same moves, probably even drink the same beer! They live in the past!” Dornhöfer mocks in good humour. “We want to do new stuff,” Rothert, 49, adds from their Kreuzberg loft, which was recently converted to include a mini roller rink. “If you do the same old moves all the time, it can get very boring.”

Serious fun

Dornhöfer also has his frustrations with Berlin’s recent roller revival among youngsters – it’s all socialising, not serious, he says. “When we skate at Tempelhof, people watch and talk to us. That’s cool, but you can’t focus!” He continues: “Now Instagram- mers own roller-skating – and they can’t even skate! They put on their skates, pose and that’s it.” After meeting in Dresden, Dornhöfer and Rothert moved to Berlin in 2003, where they skated casually at Winterfeldtplatz.

But it wasn’t until 2010 that the couple, inspired by legendary German skater Ralph Jamboogie after seeing him at a roller disco, took things seriously and started skating up to 20 hours a week. “After five years we developed our own tricks. Our style is like JB skating,” Dornhöfer says. It’s inspired by James Brown’s shuffle dancing, “but it’s sophisticated and scientific. I call it scientific skating,” he proudly asserts.

Michel Schueler, host of the discos where the couple started rhythm-skating, is a former actor from Duisburg who has been skating since he was 6. Now 49, he’s also dismissive of young Berliners’ lack of dedication to the sport. “What they do is just a fad,” he says.

Schueler also helps cast experienced roller- skaters for advertisements through his events and skate hire business Rollers Inc, but there’s a discrepancy between how the most experienced skaters look and mainstream expectations. “The people who are very comfortable on skates, they’re very old and out of shape,” he notes. “We get requests for commercials, and people expect roller girls to be models on wheels. I’ve explained to casting directors that this doesn’t exist.”

While the mainstream image of skating brings to mind a group of fit, attractive and fashionably dressed youngsters spinning tricks, Dornhöfer and Schueler agree that it’s years of dedication – rather than a sharp outfit and snappy Instagram game – that makes a skating star. “You need experience. I think the best skaters are around 40, not the youngsters!” Dornhöfer says. Al- though he does admit that there’s one downfall to racking up too many years of experience: “The youngsters can do stuff that we can’t do any more – floor moves, going down on their knees, but that’s not everything!”

The Oumi effect

These old-school skaters are apprehensive about the lasting impacts of the Oumi Janta-inspired wave, even if they are ready to take some credit for it. “We taught her her first moves. That was seven years ago. I showed her the crazy leg,” Dornhöfer claims. “She refined her skating with help from the 8-ziger,” adds Radkte, “and Michel Schueler – she also learned stuff with him.” Dornhöfer wants to set the record straight on this roller renaissance: “What Oumi does, this isn’t jam-skating – this is rhythm- skating!” Schueler explains the difference, noting that while rhythm-skating is dancing on roller skates, “jam-skating is actually breakdancing on roller skates.” This small but important detail was lost somewhere along the line.

Regardless of what the old guard thinks of this new generation, it’s clear that Janta and her followers have breathed life back into Berlin roller-skating. Back in 2010, Schueler would push a shopping trolley of skates every Sunday from his Neukölln flat uphill to Tempelhof to rent out skates for free, just trying to get people interested in the scene. Now, Tempelhof is packed with skaters – ranging from seasoned veterans like Elder-skatesman to a 25-year-old expat wearing two-day-old skates and struggling like Bambi on ice. Still, Dornhöfer and Rothert have faith in the young. “Trends can’t happen without young people reviving them!” As for Elderskatesman, four decades on and it’s still just about the joy of skating. “I have so much fun and will enjoy myself until I need a zimmer frame!”