Beyond the tourists listening to live Lennon covers at Strawberry Fields and the jazz band playing on the grass, another sound emerges from the depth of the trees in New York’s Central Park: the low bass of dance music. A closer look reveals figures who look like they could have stepped out a 1970s theme movie—perhaps Roll Bounce or the equally disco-tastic Roller Boogie. The weekly dance skaters whizz by in a roped-off oval area, doing what they have done for the past 30 years. And then Lezly Ziering takes the lead.
At 76, Ziering has more energy then most 25-year-olds when it comes to dancing and roller skating. His enthusiasm and fervor for the sport helped keep it going, even in its darkest hour. But as age creeps up on him, more and more bones break, and with his latest hospitalization for a burst appendix, the New York roller skating world could loose its most valuable player.
"The fact he is so active and so vital is awesome," says Karin Bruce, aka Chassi Crass, the founder of New York’s roller derby chapter, Gotham Girls. "I hope to be that way."
Always dressed in his token royal purple and gold skate-themed jewelry, he teaches dance classes, attends the weekend roller disco parties in the park, roller skates for fun and still finds time to appear in a beer commercial. But, despite his energy, Ziering is not invincible.
"I am very bad at falling down," said Ziering, "I am the worst! They call me the bionic man now."
Ziering rolls up his khaki shorts to reveal a long scar down his knee. Despite two knee replacements, a hip replacement, numerous broken ribs, a shattered femur that was repaired with screws and wires and damaged rotary cuff that makes it impossible for him to raise his arm—the Skate Guru goes on.
The skating rinks on the other hand, have not survived as well as he has. The only large-scale indoor rinks available are in New Jersey, Long Island or the hard-to-get-to RollerJam USA in Staten Island. People used to go to the Skate Key in the Bronx, which closed in 2006, or the Roxy in Chelsea, which closed in 2007. The last major roller rink in New York City, Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights, shut its doors in April 2007.
But Ziering has taken small steps to change that and opened a skate night in a Salvation Army gym located in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He calls this weekly party Crazy Legs, and for $10 you can bring your skates and get down as different DJs spin every Wednesday.
This isn’t the first roller skating endeavor Ziering has taken on. He kept up dance nights at the Roxy until it closed and helped Diane Carlin, aka Lola Staar, open up Dreamland Roller Rink at the Child’s Building in Coney Island last year. He has run the Central Park Dance Skaters Association for the past 30 years and, despite issues with storage space and money, he helps keep it going. He also started the NYC’s main roller-skating school, The Lezly Skate School.
After a successful 2008 summer series, Dreamland opened again with Saturday themed skate-dance parties. While the space is small, it still is place for people to roller skate, and Ziering can intermittently be found there busting a move.
"He is one of the people who is the head of the community," said Carlin, who first met him when she took his class at the Roxy about eight years ago. "You couldn’t have more passion for roller skating than Lezly has."
Ziering’s undeniable love for skating goes back to about 1979, in the peak of roller disco when the city was full of roller rinks like High Rollers on 57th Street, Coco’s in Greenwich Village and Busbies on 14th Street.
Ziering was first asked to go roller-skating by his then-wife and ex-girlfriend. He eventually agreed, but he didn’t plan on donning skates. As a longtime professional dancer, Ziering said he felt nervous that he might hurt himself on the rink and didn’t want to take the chance of ruining his dance career.
Nevertheless, he went to Village Skating (now a pub in Greenwich Village), where he watched the crowd spinning and dancing on their skates and then thought to himself, "This is for me!"
The next day he bought roller skates, a book on skating, and he began practicing in his studio. Within five days, he had completed all 20 lessons in his book and was completely hooked. Ziering even acquired the expertise of award-winning skaters Peggy Wallace and April Allen to perfect his skills.
At the time, Ziering was running a dance school in Greenwich Village, where he taught everything from ballet to African dance. He decided it would be a good place to also open up a skate school. His intuition proved correct and while Lezly Dance School is long gone, Lezly Skate School is up and running.
The Skate School took residence in the Roxy after Ziering lost the lease to rising rent in 1994. Gene DiNino, the owner of the Roxy, let Ziering in on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Armed with 75 pair of skates, he was ready to begin and stayed there for 13 years. While there are other people who teach roller skating, Ziering’s school remains one of the only skate schools in the city.
Ziering was born in Crown Heights and later moved to East 72nd Street in Manhattan. In the early ’60s, he got an apartment in the Greenwich Village and has been there ever since. While he did briefly attend New York University for dramatic arts, Ziering dropped out after two years because it interfered with his blossoming professional dance career.
From ballroom to Latin dances to studying ballet at the Paris Opera Ballet School in France, Ziering hungered to learn all he could about how people moved. When he was 17, he became the only white person to dance with the Haitian American Artists’ Society and spent two years with an Indian dance company. Ziering worked on Margerie Morningstar, a 1958 Gene Kelly film, and got to dance with Natalie Wood. Later, he said, Gene Kelly gave him a standing ovation on his dance performance.
Besides Ziering, another large part keeping NYC’s roller-skating scene alive are the Gotham Girls, a group of roller derby teams who have a practice space in Queens. Bruce said about 25 percent of the players have trained with Ziering and every season girls who have taken his class have made a team.
"He is kind of a weird component to our league without being part of the league," she said. "He is a staple in the roller skating community in NYC. I just wish we had more places to skate so we could run into each other."
From the group Bronx Gridlock, Kat Selvocki, aka Lemony Kickit, said she didn’t have any idea how to skate until she took lessons from Ziering in December 2006. "I feel like he does a great job breaking it down into the tiniest part," said Selvocki. "Seeing Lezly for the first time is kind of amazing. He clearly knows his stuff but nothing prepares you for that sea of purple."
Aside from the fast-paced Gotham Girls, Ziering’s skate school caters to regular people who just want to learn to skate. During one class, Ziering stood in Mercer Playground in Greenwich Village with half a dozen students. The indoor session had just ended and they changed out of their quads, the classic skate, and into roller blades.
Ziering took off his hand-dyed, royal-purple skates and did the same. Of course, his were in a specially made purple leather case that resembled a giant holster and, although the roller blades were purple, they were plainer then the modern skates the people in his class sported. Yet, despite their simple construction, Ziering hopped up and moved with an ease that some people can’t even master walking.
"Stop, push, stop, push," Ziering demonstrated. After a few bouts around the park, Ziering gathered his students to show them a new move. He watched as each person tried it out. "Now, fixed position turn!" he belted out and skated down the yard wiggling like an upright snake.
When you ask people what they remember most about roller skating they tend to say something about a birthday party when they were young and how they just held on to the edge, terrified to let go. Former skate student Judy Chau remembered being so mortified during her first roller skating experience that the next time she was invited, she didn’t even take off her shoes.
"When you are older, people think it’s cute you take lessons," says Chau, who constantly smiled and laughed—even when she fell flat on her butt, a invariable theme in the skate world. Decked out in kneepads and wrist guards, Chau says, "You are going to fall, but falling only hurts a little."
An easy thing to say for a young woman but, as Ziering taught the class—without the slightest complaint about his broken rib—the roller skating guru’s legacy skated on.