The Line-Up, Long Freddie, ABC, and Chili Willie  — gibberish to the uninitiated, but recognized by any skate dancer as the iconic routines that Venice Beach skaters have been performing for decades.

The skate dance movement began at the end of the 70s when many Black Angelenos flocked to Venice on the weekend, as it was one of the only seaside areas where they were welcome.

Though roller skating was already a popular hobby, Venice was the first place where big groups started roller dancing together and their groove, tunes, and talent quickly attracted massive crowds. The original skaters — Larry, Jimmy, Duvall, and above all group leader Mad — created dance moves that were soon co-opted in Hollywood movies and seen in rinks around the world.

In short, the Venice Beach skate dancers sparked a roller revolution.

Yet despite their fame, acclaim, and the positive community they promoted, the skate dancers endured decades of harassment by city authorities.

Police consistently challenged their right to skate in Venice and routinely confiscated their sound system. By the end of the 90s their beloved skate area had been bulldozed in the name of renovation and many dancers were pushed out of town.

Today there is a designated Roller Skate Dance Plaza, and in a whitewashed Venice home to the $18 avocado toast, it’s one few places that still displays the authentic diversity, spirit, and artistry that put the neighborhood on the map.

“From age seven to 70, all races, genders, and sexualities come together for the common cause of having a good time,” said longtime skate dancer Terrell Ferguson. “It’s hard to get a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds together just to have fun without any politics going on, and to me that is one of the most special parts about it.”

Terrell Ferguson describes himself as the baby of the O.G. skate dancers. In the summer of 1979 when he was ten years old, Ferguson’s dad dropped him off by the skaters while he went to play basketball. Forty-two years later, Ferguson is still dancing there most weekends.

“It was infectious and I always wanted to be there on weekends because I couldn’t think of anything better,” said Ferguson. “I even turned down a job when they were like ‘well can you work weekends?’ and I was like ‘ooh that’s going to be a deal breaker’.”

Skate dancing changed Ferguson’s life. As the roller phenomenon spread worldwide, Ferguson was at the center of the movement and, under the expert tutelage of group leader Mad, he quickly became one of the best skate dancers in the game.

Ferguson was getting booked in all kinds of advertisements and cast in shows that took him as far afield as Switzerland and China. Though he’s always happy to strap on his skates and roll down to Venice, he says nothing will ever compare to what the vibe was like in the golden era of the 80s.

It was the height of the break dancing craze, a time of general economic prosperity, and when the LA Olympics turned Venice Beach into an international tourist destination.

“You not only had skaters in that area listening to music, but also the poppers and lockers ‘the b-boys’, dancers, and tourists,” said Ferguson. “Every Saturday and every Sunday, hundreds and hundreds of people came to that area. I don’t think there can ever be a time that cool.”

Ferguson said that across Los Angeles there was a strong feeling of hope for the future.

“That was the thought in LA  — everybody is going to have money, everybody is going to have fun, and Venice was like the rest of LA but on steroids,” said Ferguson.

Unfortunately, during the 90s things did not get better for the Venice Beach skate dancers. After the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1992 riots, the LAPD became much more aggressive in their actions towards the skaters. Problems with the police had existed since the 80s, but according to Ferguson, the tensions would generally simmer down when officers realized the skaters weren’t causing any trouble.

Mad, who had for years been in charge of bringing the music, was repeatedly thrown into jail because of his sound system. In 1994, skate dancer Pamela Pine took over as guardian of the sound system.

“Mad taught me how to build my first sound system and it lived in his garage. I’d pick it up and bring it over every weekend. This went on for years, so you have some idea of the dedication,” said Pine. “We had a hellish time with the city in the 90s and the early 2000s.”

Over time the relationship did improve, which Pine said was assisted by the founding of the official non-profit the Venice Beach Skate Dance Association. In 2000, Parks and Recs opened the designated Skate Dance Plaza on Venice Beach, and local dancers were guaranteed a place to roll in peace.

When the pandemic hit the Skate Dance Plaza was shut down, but instead of causing the community to fade away, it created a youth skate dance resurgence. As a safe and socially distanced outdoor activity, the popularity of skate dance took off in 2020, fueled in part by trending TikToks.

Longtime skaters like Pine and Ferguson want to make it clear: skate dancing never died and the older generation never stopped dancing. However, there is now a fresh slew of Gen Z dancers rolling up to Venice every weekend.

Per Venice skate tradition, older dancers have taught these new dancers their moves free of cost. According to Pine, this has led to some tension when young dancers use these new skills and their online popularity to start charging others for lessons.

However, overall Pine and Ferguson agree that the excitement and attention these dancers are bringing to the community is a positive thing.

“I like new blood, new energy, new moves,” said Ferguson. “I think as long as the new skaters that are coming in now continue to pump in the same blood and pass on the traditions, the teaching, the moves, and the love, then it’ll be the type of place that can continue on.”

Clara@smdp.com