John Legend Celebrates African-American Roller Rinks at 'United Skates' Premiere

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Directors Tina Brown (left) and Dyana Winkler flank John Legend

“These rinks really celebrated black music and black culture and togetherness and a lot of them are disappearing around the country,” the musician told The Hollywood Reporter of why he wanted to be a part of the HBO documentary.

John Legend was joined by Salt-N-Pepa’s Cheryl "Salt" James and Sandra "Pepa" Denton and The Real host Jeannie Mai at the Avalon on Wednesday night for the premiere of HBO’s new documentary United Skates.

The film documents the history and impact of roller rinks that catered to African-American skaters and the unique culture and skating styles that developed in that setting. Where once there were hundreds of them around the country, the number has been rapidly decreasing and with the rinks' closing, many people feel that an important part of African-American culture is being lost.

Legend served as an executive producer on the film and he spoke to reporters about why it was important to document these community spaces.

“I skated as a kid and we used to go to a skating rink in my town ... but it was a place for us to have fun. I think it's an important culture that had a lot to do with the birth of hip-hop, and I think it's exciting to celebrate that culture and maybe lament that we’re losing some of that right now because a lot of these rinks are disappearing.”

In addition to being social gathering places, the rinks were also the first performance spaces for hip-hop legends such as NWA, Queen Latifah and the World Class Wreckin' Cru. James told reporters the important role that these rinks played both culturally and within her own life.

“I grew up roller skating and its a part of hip hop culture ... I remember taking my son when he was about 3 years old and I remember the DJ going, ‘Ok, now we’re going to have a dance party!’ And he shocked the crap out of me. He went and started break dancing and he won the contest! ... It’s a family oriented thing that we do in the African-American community that was really dear to our hearts.”

The Avalon was transformed into a high-end supper club for the premiere. The dance floor was filled with tables with white tablecloths and servers brought glasses of sparkling champagne for the audience to enjoy during the screening.

United Skates was co-directed by first-time directors Tina Brown and Dyana Winkler, and Winkler spoke with THR about the vital role these rinks served to unify communities.

“There are grandparents playing dominoes on the side to hear the music and see the younger ones. There’s teenagers flirting and falling in love. There’s everything in between, and when we lose these spaces, where are all of these people going? How are you interacting face-to-face anymore that isn’t just on social media? ... There’s a lot of elements on a lot of levels that fall apart when we lose community spaces.”

The film was greeted with rapturous applause from the audience and then guests quickly moved to the afterparty in the lobby, where they chowed down on fried-chicken sliders, mini grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken tacos.

After the screening, the Avalon’s main stage was transformed into its own mini roller rink where skaters showed off their best moves, combining dance and gymnastics to spin, jump and twist across the stage and, for one more night, the best of skate culture got a chance to take center stage.

United Skates will premiere on HBO on Feb. 18.