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Their world is on wheels
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
October 18, 2002


There was a roller skating revolution 20 years ago. Roller Blades hit the scene, and roller skating became extreme. But there's a calmer kind of skating that's been around a lot longer. In Duluth and Superior, the old-timers with the Arrowhead Roller Skating Club go to the rink every Tuesday night. And they don't just skate; they dance on wheels. The youngsters in the club are in their 50's.

Earl Waldriff and Doris Mace have been skating partners for more than 20 years. Earl is the oldest, active member of the club at age 81.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

Byron Selbrede came down to the World of Wheels roller rink in Superior for the club's party. He used to come all the time. He doesn't skate too often any more, but he said he couldn't miss the 25th anniversary.

He put on his red, roller-skating club vest with all the pins and medals on it, and he took his skates out of their carrying case.

"This is the old-time roller-skating that we knew as kids," he said. "We've got the four wheels running parallel to each other just like we always did in the old days. The roller blading is a new thing. I've tried it. I've got a pair of Roller Blades. This is better."

A woman in a red roller skating club vest sees Byron Selbrede and hollers, "I don't believe it!"

Ruby Jones gives Sellbrede a big hug. She has even more skating pins on her vest than he does. She founded the Arrowhead Roller Skating Club with her late husband in 1977. Back then, most the club members were in their 50s or 60s.

"The seniors now are really senior," she says. "They're older ones now, like me."

She says anyone could come, but they don't.

Carol and Bob Blair are longtime members of the Arrowhead Roller Skating Club. He's the president, and she's the treasurer.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

"What young people want to be with these old ones, you know?" she asks, then laughs.

Some of the skating pins on Ruby Jones' vest show which dance steps she's mastered. But she doesn't dance anymore.

"I know how," she says. "But my feet won't follow me. I don't want to fall, because it's too long in healing. You know how that goes."

Most the skaters in the club have given up dancing. Now they just skate - with no turns or twirls. A lot of them have given up skating all together.

Dozens of people showed up for the anniversary party, but most of them didn't even bring skates. They sat at tables, drinking coffee, eating cake, and looking at old pictures from dance shows the club used to put on.

Virginia Magney used to skate several times a week. In fact, she was the club's dance instructor.

"I guess I knew 21 dances at one time on roller skates," she says. "We did everything from waltzes to blues numbers to cha-chas, to you name it."

She says dancing is "more exciting" on roller skates.

Bob Kyllonen has no plans to quit skating. He's 75.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

"It's like you're flying, " she says. "But about 10 years ago I hit my head while I was skating and was dizzy for about six months. So, I decided maybe I better not do this anymore. So now I'm really into ballroom dancing. Lot safer. Not quite as much fun as dancing on skates, but it's still fun."

Bob Kyllonen still skates. He was one of the original members of the club 25 years ago, and he still comes to the rink twice a week.

"When we first started up, we were limiting the club to 150 members," he says. "Now we struggle with two or three dozen people. We'll be down to eight to 15 in the winter time around here. People either get out of shape, die, move away."

Kyllonen looks out at the skaters rolling past.

"Now this couple right here," he says. "They still try to keep into their dance skate rhythms considerably. I've more or less fallen away from that because I don't have a partner. She quit skating years ago."

Bob Kyllonen has no plans to quit skating. He's 75, but he met an even older skater at a rink in the Twin Cities a few weeks ago.

"This fellow, he's going on 93," Kyllonen says, beaming. "He skates three times a week. But he says to me, he says, 'You know, ever since I turned 91, I just don't skate as hard as I used to.'"

Kyllonen hoots with laughter.

"That guy is my mentor," he says.

The lights are low, the DJ is playing an old Johnny Mathis tune, and Bob Kyllonen skates out onto the floor. Six couples and a few singles are circling the rink. Some of them are wobbly on their skates, but Kyllonen is sure and steady. He skates in slow circles, out in the center of the floor. He does some fancy-looking dance steps. He dips and turns to the music - all by himself.

The couple that Kyllonen pointed out earlier glides past. They flow around the rink like liquid. They're poetry on wheels. They pull off the floor for a break, but they keep holding hands.

Earl Waldriff is the oldest club member who still skates regularly. He's 81. His partner is Doris Mace. She's one of the original members of the club. She took up roller dancing in the 1970s, when she when she was 50.

"They built a rink in town, and I hadn't done it, like I say, since I was a young girl," she remembers. "So my friend and I said, 'Let's go see if we can still do it.' And we've kept coming ever since."

Earl Waldriff says he skated for the first time when he was 59 years old.

"It might be hard to believe," he says, "but I had some real major surgery, and I had a doctor suggest roller skating. He said, 'Have you ever roller skated?' I said, 'No.' And he says, 'Well it's a lot smoother than jogging, a lot smoother than even walking."

A new song comes on. It's a Latin-beat version of "Tea for Two."

"There's our cha-cha," says Doris Mace.

"They don't play this very often," Earl Waldriff says, with a gentle smile. "If you'll excuse us."

Doris Mace and Earl Waldriff are on the rink every Tuesday night and every Wednesday morning at "World of Wheels" in Superior. They also go ballroom dancing a couple times a week in Duluth.