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Can these Black veterans revive Kansas City's roller-skating scene? 'What they're doing is huge'

 Two men wearing skates, camouflage pants and black T-shirt that read "SK8 Shot" sit atop a giant, brightly colored depiction of a boombox.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Knejie Allen, left, and Adontis Atkins, right, sit on top of the DJ booth at their “SK8-Dark-30” party at Winnwood Skate Center. During intermission, the two addressed a massive crowd, thanking them for coming out to celebrate their studio's first official roller-skating party.

The founders of SK8 Shot Studios are taking Kansas City roller-skating rinks by storm. Their plan is to revive the once thriving scene and grow it into a global destination for Black skate culture — one class and skate party at a time.

Skaters of all skill levels filled the rink on a recent Friday night at Winnwood Skate Center in Kansas City, the metro’s new mecca for Black skate culture.

They were there because of the work of Knejie Allen and Adontis Atkins, two Black Air Force veterans who opened last fall the region’s only stand-alone roller-skating school, SK8 Shot Studios, at 16th Street and Burlington Road in North Kansas City.

“To be the first to do something like this … and it be our passion, what we love to do, it's pretty surreal,” Allen said.

Since opening their teaching studio, this was the duo’s first official roller-skating party — and the turnout was impressive.

On that frosty night, more than 200 people showed up from as far away as Arizona and Ohio to display their flashy skates and skills on wheels.

Close-up image of a pair of legs wearing black, sparkly skates moving on a skating rink. The skates have a drawing of a fox on them.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
The skates of Wesley Edwin, who attended the "SK8-Dark-30" party and is a regular at Winnwood Skate Center in Kansas City. Edwin said skating saved his son's life, and added value to his own.

As hip-hop, R&B, and house music pumped through the sound system, novice skaters hugged the Winnwood’s inner lane, hoping not to get knocked down or fall — the “wood tax” as it’s known. Experts flew effortlessly around the outer lane, weaving in, out of and around traffic like NASCAR drivers.

In the middle, people like 36-year-old Ciara Chinyere practiced what seasoned skaters call “footwork.”

“That's very intimidating to me,” Chinyere said. “I can do it, but I rarely actually get in the middle and do it while people are watching. So I did it a few times that night. Got some good footage too.”

Among the eclectic crowd were people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations and racial backgrounds. That diversity is by design.

“(We’re) very intentional on inclusion and trying to get as many people as possible to see what's so great about dancing on these wheels,” said Allen, who was first introduced to roller-skating as a freshman at the historically Black University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, in Little Rock. “How freeing it is, how easy it is to get into a flow state and really lose yourself.”

Skating styles and techniques from all over were on display, like the James Brown style, out of Chicago.

“You've got JB, you've got house, you've got trains and trios. You've got sliding, the Cali style, snapping,” Allen said. “You've got the slow walk, you've got Houston style, Dallas style, Memphis style."

"A lot of this started because people simply wanted to dance on skates," he said.

A large group of people stand, sit and lie on a floor inside a skating rink posing for the camera.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
After the "SK8-Dark-30" intermission, Knejie and Adontis asked for a group photo with everyone at the WinnWood Skate Center in Kansas City. Skaters traveled from St. Louis, Oklahoma, Ohio and elsewhere to attend.

Allen and Atkins have high hopes for the future of their enterprise.

“The goal is to have all 50 (states), and (people) coming from out of the country,” Allen said. “Because at any international skate party, that's what you're going to get: people coming from Paris, London, Brazil, all these different places. That's what we're going to grow to.”

Connection and balance

At SK8 Shot Studios, the pair host 10 sessions per week, with different classes ranging from beginner to advanced. They also hold monthly workshops, private lessons and online learning for people who can’t regularly travel to the studio.

The attention to detail they learned in the military has served them well when planning the curriculum and building their brand.

Now, the dynamic skate duo have 70 active members, including Erica Culler, who got into skating less than six months ago.

After a friend convinced Culler to make the drive from Gardner, Kansas, up to Winnwood for an adult skate night, and she saw professional skaters like Allen and Atkins working it on the rink, she was hooked.

“I skate every single day,” she said. “If I'm not here at SK8 Shot, then I'm at Winwood. If I'm not at Winwood then I'm at Skate City in Overland Park. If I'm not there, then I have a friend who I skate with at their house.”

 A man wearing one red and one blue skate rolls on a dance studio floor talking and appearing to give instruction to a young woman who is skating unsteadily next to him.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Knejie Allen, left, and Erica Culler during a Wednesday evening basic fundamentals class at SK8 Shot Studios in North Kansas City on Feb. 1. Allen was teaching a move called "the bubble."

Allen and Atkins connected around their love for roller-skating through a chance encounter while on active duty at Whiteman Air Force Base in 2019.

“(I) came across Winnwood (and) went there with a fellow service member who was visiting,” said Atkins, who picked up skating as a teenager from his mother.

“I ran into KJ. He was doing what's referred to as a coffin drop,” he said, referring to a highly difficult move where the skater balances on one foot while dropping as low to the floor as possible, holding their other leg fully extended and shoulders parallel to the floor. “That move is what sparked our initial conversation because I saw that and I was like, ‘I need to learn that.’”

Since there were no skating facilities on or near Whiteman, Atkins and Allen began carpooling several days a week to every skating rink within 100 miles of Knob Noster.

When the pair took a trip to one of the longest-running skate events in the U.S., Atlanta’s international “Skate-A-Thon,” their company name was born.

SK8 Shot started out as a media platform for roller-skating, but in early 2020 they started an LLC and began producing merchandise to promote Black roller-skating culture.

Once the world reopened after the COVID pandemic, Atkins and Allen began building relationships with local skating rinks like Winnwood and Rink Ratz, in Blue Springs. Before long, they were teaching aspiring skaters at Winnwood, something they still do on the weekends.

They also traveled around the country representing Kansas City in some of the biggest skate parties and events.

Turning heads

SK8 Shot’s rapid growth has caught the eye of many people in Kansas City, including local roller-skating legend Mike Richardson.

“What they're doing is huge, because I tell those guys they made me love it again,” Richardson said. “And for them to take another step further to want to teach other people, I love it.”

Richardson has competed as a professional skater since the early 1990s with the famed Kansas City skate crew, The High Rollers. He’s also credited for choreography on the iconic film “Roll Bounce,” about Black skate culture.

Richardson said the duo are building a foundation for future generations. It’s something he feels the Kansas City scene has been missing since 2008, when city leaders forced the closure of Grandview Skateland, a rink Richardson grew up in.

He said it was closed to keep Black people out of the southern suburb.

“Rinks closing in the Black community put a lot of kids in harm's way, it really did. And so we need them,” Richardson said. “When those rinks closed, that's when people started getting into trouble, getting out in the streets gang-banging, doing all types of different stuff, selling drugs or whatever else it may be.”

A man wearing skates appears to be rolling around a studio space while two young women practice skating around small, plastic cones placed on the floor.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Adontis Atkins, left, taught students how to weave between cones on one foot at a Wednesday evening basic fundamentals course at SK8 Shot Studio, off 16th Street and Burlington Road in North Kansas City on Feb. 1.

Allen and Atkins are themselves students of Black skate culture, and they know its connection to the civil rights movement.

“The nights we skate are because that was all we were given at the time,” Atkins said. “But the rink, like the churches, became a space for us to meet and build community, or an environment to deal with some of the issues that we were faced with outside the rink.”

Allen and Atkins are confident this is just the beginning. They said the biggest inspiration is knowing they can break ground in the industry just by being Black veterans.

“We're driven, dedicated to making sure that this grows much bigger than Kansas City. We want to grow this into a franchise of roller-skating rinks, a franchise of studios … growing this business to be a nationwide, worldwide phenomenon that nobody's ever seen,” said Allen.

But the work is not just about them or their business, they said — it’s about creating welcoming spaces for all kinds of skaters.

“We've had several folks come through here that have been involved in prior projects for skateboarding, more specifically,” Atkins said. “But it's the same mission: creating spaces for people that like to creatively express themselves on wheels.”

With that as motivation, the duo is well on their way to making Kansas City an iconic roller-skating scene.

As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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