One-Wheel Roller

King of the rink Leo White is ready for prime time, but is prime time ready for him?

After the first verse, Clipse's chunky interlude begins, and everybody stops -- everybody except for White, who does a Hula Hoop shimmy across the floor to the earthquake beat.

The onlookers' mouths are agape as White launches into a breakdance-era "alpha kick." Without standing up, he begins walking across the floor on his hands, losing his wallet in the process.

But White's still money -- he is doing this all on one-wheel skates, a wholly remarkable feat of balance and skill that stands virtually unrivaled in a "sport" that has thrived mainly underground since its roller-derby-and-disco heyday in the early '70s.

Saints owner Andre Stith claims he's been racially profiled by the Creve Coeur police.
Jennifer Silverberg
Saints owner Andre Stith claims he's been racially profiled by the Creve Coeur police.
White gets his spin on, sans rear wheels.
Jennifer Silverberg
White gets his spin on, sans rear wheels.

White's skates, which he fashions himself by removing all but one wheel on the toe of each boot, are so unusual that he's considering patenting them.

As if it's not tough enough to walk around on the tips of your piggies, imagine trying to stay upright on a wheel taped to your big toe. Next, envision yourself rolling around on this wheel, all the while maintaining total command of your body as you bust stylistic dance moves.

Yeah, right -- forget about it. Yet White takes this seemingly impossible stunt to his own level, effortlessly injecting somersaults and handstands into his routine. Even his most experienced peers are flat-out chickenshit of mimicking White's one-wheel roll.

"I've been skating since I was two years old, but to do the one-wheel thing -- I'm not there yet," says D.C.'s Bowens, who's 36.

Clad in a maroon polo shirt with "Skate King" emblazoned across the left breast, Skate King owner Mathew Foggy, a sturdy, exuberant five-foot-eight welterweight with a salt-and-pepper beard, is getting his roll on with the rest of the pack. The week before, he was all back-slappin' proprietor, patrolling the carpeted perimeter in blue button-down, snappy tie and shiny loafers.

Many of the younger patrons are jealous of the 53-year-old Foggy's boomer peers because their comparatively advanced age gets them into Skate King's 35-and-over Wednesday-night session. Even White, who's less than a year away from this threshold, is prevented from participating in the über-exclusive roll, where rap music gives way to the smoother riffs of the Commodores, Herbie Hancock and the like.

"There's a lot of 'em [young adults] who pine for that music," says Foggy, whose mischievous smile reveals a bouncer's pleasure in being a total hard-ass with regard to the age restriction.

A good hour after the Friday-morning session has ended, Foggy is holding court in the Skate King parking lot with a dozen or so of his loyal rollers.

"People just refuse to leave," he cracks.

The child of small-business owners who now resides in a Victorian house near Powell Symphony Hall, Foggy is an old-school brother for whom the blingin' bling never served as a yardstick for success. For him, it was all about carving out a niche as a black post-civil-rights businessman.

"I've been in the biz for 32 years," says Foggy, who bought and refurbished the Pine Lawn center, his second rink, in 1978. "There's been no boom or bust for us. Roller-skating has always been big in the African-American community."

But geography is also a factor, says Saints owner Andre Stith Sr., whose suburban rink, although it still mainly caters to blacks, attracts a far more diverse ethnic clientele than Skate King.

"White people aren't gonna go down toward Jennings [Station Road]," he explains.

Stith calls St. Louis the "the Midwest roller-skating capital of the U.S." Although skaters in hotbeds such as Cincinnati and Detroit might dispute this claim, all agree that that St. Louis skaters have a distinctive style that is difficult to imitate.

"The St. Louis style of skating is very, very unique; there is nothing like it that I have ever seen," explains Rob Hunter of Cincinnati. "I describe the St. Louis style as a smooth, sexual style -- like a Marvin Gaye song brought to life on wheels."

Hunter claims that Cincinnati skaters "have a need for speed," D.C. skaters like the funk and Motown rollers want to get their twirl on. Every town prides itself on its style, something that is on display every time "cliques" from other cities come together for one of the national skate parties.

Then a penniless twenty-one-year-old student at St. Louis University, Foggy obtained a loan and opened his first rink in East St. Louis in 1970. Even though he saw his King Management company grow to include rinks in Camden, New Jersey, and Shreveport, Louisiana (he has since sold them), Foggy's strongest emotional ties are to that first rink, formerly called the Starlight Skating Center, where he learned to skate at age twelve.

It is at this East Side rink where the early St. Louis icons strutted their stuff -- legends such as Thomas Bowie, who was known for his "travel spins" -- "spinning around on his toes like a top," White explains -- and Brian Morris, the first roller to perfect the two-wheel (per skate) technique, cut a Coke commercial and get married on skates.

"The best skaters are from East St. Louis," says Foggy. "Thomas Bowie is one of the best skaters to ever put on skates. He has the same things that make Leo unique."

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