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Fast Forward skates (copy)

Skates for rent at Fast Forward.

I know Madison isn’t Los Angeles or New York City, where trends are born and die before ever making it to flyover country.

Still, I was surprised to learn that Fast Forward Skate Center, the city’s only roller skating rink, was still a happening place as recently as the late 1990s and early 2000s. A born-and-bred Midwesterner, I have vague tweenager memories of packed rinks 20 years before that, and the sense that skating of the four-wheeled variety had been on the decline ever since.

Sure enough, roller skating’s American heyday spanned the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to Jim McMahon, executive director of Roller Skating Association International, the rink industry’s trade group.

But all that means is that Madison is a proven trend-bucker well-positioned to restore disco balls, the “couples skate” and that wonderfully musty smell of the oft-rented roller skate back to their rightful place in the recreation hierarchy.

Fast Forward manager Justin Alling told me, “we’ve never been in danger of closing,” and pointed to two things that could have played a role in the rink’s success during the 10 to 15 years after it opened in 1990: offering in-line skates for rent when in-line skating got popular, and the lack of as many competing recreation options for kids.

The industry as a whole wasn’t as lucky. The number of RSAI roller rink members dropped from about 1,200 in the early 1980s to about 800 today, McMahon said, and the “majority of the losses were in the United States.”

These days, people seeking non-sports recreation in a big indoors space are going for things like laser tag, which has seen the number of its facilities grow in North America from 581 in 2008 to 979 this year, according to Erik Guthrie, curator of the Laser Tag Museum (yes, there is a laser tag museum) in Louisville, Kentucky.

Dane County, for example, just saw the opening of iCombat laser tag in Fitchburg. It offers “military-style weapons that mimic an M-16 rifle, M110 sniper rifle and a Glock hand gun,” according to a Sept. 7 story in this newspaper.

Because apparently an abundance of real-world gun violence and war just aren’t enough, and the chance to (fake) shoot another human being trumps skating in circles with your sweetie as George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” plays on the hi-fi.

OK, so a healthy sense of nostalgia drives part of my interest in roller skating. That and poor dancing skills. Roller rinks allow non-dancers like me to move to the music without looking stupid — or at least no stupider than everyone else.

If my wife is any indication, it won’t be easy for Alling to regain the interest of the masses. She makes a face whenever I suggest a Fast Forward date night, preferring more 21st century entertainment, I guess, or maybe a meal at yet another hip Madison restaurant with “locally sourced” ingredients.

Not that all hope is lost. McMahon told me that rarely does a day go by that he doesn’t hear from someone interested in opening a rink.

“In the last two years, it’s quadrupled the interest over the last 10 years,” he said.

That’s encouraging.

Better wheels on one’s feet than a weapon in one’s hands — in pretty much any era, and in any place.

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.