Elmer Akers has dedicated his life to roller skating. Here's why he and other local protectors of the culture keep rolling after all these years.
Take a look inside Skateland in Indianapolis, where a DJ hopes to bring black skate culture back to life. Indianapolis Star
Elmer Akers has been working for the company that owns and operates Skateland for nearly four decades, but he still has trouble describing exactly what his job is at the west-side rink.
He’s the DJ who controls the groove. He's the man who handles all of the maintenance. He oversees security. He comes up with new ideas to bring people through the doors.
But most importantly, the 54-year-old says he works tirelessly to ensure that the community that has shaped him since he was the smallest kid at the rink keeps moving forward in Indianapolis.
"It was like a safe haven. I wasn't one to be out in the streets. I had strict parents for sure, but once they came here and dropped me off and saw the atmosphere ... they didn't have a problem bringing me to the skating rink," he said.
Akers said his love of skating dates back to his first trip to the Rollerland Skating Rink in Downtown Indianapolis when he was just a boy in the early '70s. He remembers the concrete floors, metal railings and somewhat cramped skating conditions.
But he also remembers the lines of skaters doing smooth, technical tricks and shuffling to the music in a way that he had never seen before.
His second skating experience happened at the former United Skates of America on Shadeland Avenue. He said the floor was bigger and having the room to both watch and learn allowed his passion to grow.
Akers was a passionate skater and a fast learner, but being small for his age meant he had to polish his skills to earn respect at the rink.
“If you didn't know how to skate, they picked you up, they rolled you and they moved you out the way. It was a dedicated crowd," he said with a laugh. "But you work on your skills ... go in the middle and practice. You learn how to spin and you learn how to crazy leg. Once you think you’re good enough, you kind of come out here and test the waters a little bit. Get close to the edge and see if you can hang, or hop in the back of a line and see if you can keep up."
Akers was soon running lines of his own and feeding off of the energy of the crowd. He said skate nights in the '70s and '80s drew hundreds of people and served as a place for the expression of all forms of black culture and art.
Elmer Akers, DJ and long-time skater, plays some old school music during adult night at Skateland on Thursday, June 6, 2019. (Photo: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar)
During the Civil Rights movement, skaters fought for the desegregation of rinks that denied entry to black skaters. And even when rinks allowed them in, they were often barred from skating alongside white patrons, leading to the establishment of black-only nights at rinks across the country.
That separation gave birth to a black skate culture which pulled the music, moves and style from discos and put them on wheels.
That culture transformed rinks from places to have kids' parties into a safe nightlife alternative with the establishment of adult nights that continue to be the biggest night of the week for Skateland and other rinks.
Adult nights at Skateland run from 9 p.m. Thursday to 1:30 a.m. Friday, and 9:30 p.m. Sunday to 2 a.m. Monday.
Roller rinks continued to evolve as centers for black expression and creation. In the 1980s, rinks played a crucial role in the growth of hip-hop as rappers, DJs and break dancers who couldn't get booked at other venues could rock crowds at the rink.
But as black creators gained more avenues of expression in the '90s and 2000s, dwindling attendance and financial hardships led to the closure of many rinks, including the Indianapolis rink that Akers first called home.
Akers' formal career with Skateland began in the early '80s when it was still called United Skate of America. It became Skateland in the mid-2000s. Starting as a teen, his responsibilities matured as he did.
"In 1988, I joined the police department and became an officer, so from being a floor guard and a DJ, I became security," he said. "I left the police department in 2000. At that point I came in as a manager and managed the east rink until it closed in 2005. Then I moved here to the west rink and I've been here ever since."
Elmer Akers II (left) speaks to fellow IPD patrolman Bruce Henry while fielding 911 calls in 1992. (Photo: IndyStar archives)
Akers speaks deliberately and sternly when he discusses the work that needs to be put in to keep the local skating culture strong. He taps the table forcefully with his fingertips as he lists each objective and obstacle.
You can see him doing the math in his head when he talks about the cost of running a skate session and replacing the lockers at the rink.
But when the topic switches to the art form of skating and what it feels like to be on the floor when everything is in sync, he glances upward and cracks a smile as if he's remembering.
When he talks about his favorite song to skate to — "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" by Vaughan Mason & Crew — his shoulders sway and his smile widens.
The feeling of leading a line of skaters while everyone at the rink watches is a feeling that cannot be replicated, he said. A feeling that never fades.
Akers said the biggest obstacle threatening both the rink and the culture in Indianapolis is not something that can be repaired with hammer or nail or a stellar marketing strategy.
The joy that fills Akers’ eyes as he describes leading a line is replaced with anguish when talks about a fatal shooting outside the rink that claimed the life of 32-year-old Justin Anderson on Feb. 4, 2019.
Skateland officials took to their Facebook page in the wake of the shooting to talk about Anderson and, thanks to security camera footage, share more about how he carried himself that night.
They said he came in with his fiancée, holding her skates as he held the door open for other patrons.
He didn't skate, but he watched as she enjoyed herself and had positive interactions with staff and other guests during his visit, according to the Facebook post. Anderson had no dispute with anyone inside the rink.
At the end of the night, when suspect Damon Lewis Jr. allegedly rolled down his car window to open fire in the parking lot, Anderson pushed his fiancée out of the way to save her life, according to police reports.
Police said the shooting was the result of a personal issue that sparked a fight at a local church the week before. Lewis maintains that he was acting in self-defense because of previous altercation.
Akers lowers his head and adjusts the brim of his hat when he recalls that night. He mourns the loss of Anderson, and says the rink is still recovering from the impact.
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"It's almost like we’re a victim too, because now our business is being tarnished and everyone has a bad impression of the skating rink," he said.
But Akers believes that Skateland can once again be a place where everyone feels safe to express themselves and the next generation of skaters can find their passion.
"The skate culture here in Indy, especially for the black community, we have to keep it alive. As long as I'm here, I'll put everything I've got into this rink," he said. "We’ll hold strong and make it."
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