James Cotto Is Still Living in New York City’s Golden Age of Roller Skating
The Lower East Side skating legend is 62 and ailing, but he can still roller skate like a god.
2:28 PM EDT on August 16, 2023
On a balmy summer evening last year, the sexagenarian James Cotto glided with ease amid swirling disco balls, shimmering lights, and roller skaters decked out in retro '70s and '80s outfits. Cotto, regarded by many in the New York City roller skating community as a legend, awed the crowd as he twisted his legs behind one another, hopped on and off his heels, and spun in place to The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight."
None of the cheering spectators at DiscOasis, the pop-up roller skating extravaganza which took over Central Park's Wollman Rink in 2022 (it's been replaced this year by, shudder, pickleball), knew that Cotto had had two hip replacement surgeries, or that he'd survived several heart attacks, or that his eyesight was deteriorating.
But Cotto, who was decades older than most of the other performers, knew and felt every injury. In addition to regular massages and daily hot baths with Epsom salts, he was popping Tylenols each day, "to keep up with the youth!" he told me.
Roller skating has brought many things to Cotto. It's a respite, a pastime, a reason to keep his aging body moving. It's also been a calling to him since he was young. But now, at 62, he's grappling with the question of time: How much longer can he continue doing what he loves? And if he doesn't share his passion with the next generation, will the sport die out with people like him?
"The way it died out after the mid-'80s, I don't want it to die again," he said.
Let's go back to those halcyon days, for a second. Yes, we're talking about the height of the roller disco craze in the 1970s, a time when roller rinks dotted every borough of New York City and the rink was the place to be. Cotto, who grew up in the Lower East Side, discovered dance skating when he was 14 years old, when he stumbled upon a skating rink on Waverly Place and became mesmerized by skaters dancing in sync, effortlessly gliding within inches of one another. "I fell in love," he said.
Cotto desperately wanted to join a skating group called Hell on Wheels, but he was laughed out of his tryout. "They go, 'Dude, you'll never be in our group,'" he recalled. Cotto went home, humiliated.
Determined to prove them wrong, he began lugging his boombox and skates to East River Park, a short walk from his home, every day. Drawing inspiration from other roller skaters, Olympic figure skaters, and dance moves like the moonwalk, Cotto soon developed his own style of skating. Other skaters have described it as "suave," "velvety," and, the highest praise of all to Cotto, "smooth."
His signature move—which is now taught in a roller skating training program in the Netherlands—involves deftly twisting from side to side with one's feet shoulder-width apart before alternately criss-crossing one leg in front of the other. It's a neat trick—and one that earned him the nicknames "Spaghetti Legs" and "Rubber Band Man" from the roller skating community.
The following year, rather than joining Hell on Wheels, which now wanted him, Cotto started his own skate crew—the Crown Kings. They performed and competed in contests around the Lower East Side. With the Crown Kings as well as on his own, Cotto won thousands of dollars in cash prizes, including as the champion of local radio station WKTU Disco 92's citywide contest.
Ishmael Alvarado, a member of a rival skate crew, remembers Cotto as the best skater in the neighborhood. "He defined the style of street skating in the Lower East Side," Alvarado told me.
In his early 20s, Cotto moved to Puerto Rico to live with his parents, who had moved back after their kids graduated from high school. There, he skated at a legendary rink called Disco Patin and with the Puerto Rican roller speed skating team while studying accounting at the University of Puerto Rico.
After graduating, Cotto returned to New York and found work as a DJ. While roller skating was his first love, nightlife drew him in. He stopped skating regularly and focused instead on DJing, often playing two clubs in one night.
That's where Cotto met his future wife, Elsie Valentin, a bartender at one of the clubs. Valentin encouraged him to leave his club days behind, so he traded the roller skates, the boombox, and the turntable for his accounting books.
Life went on, away from the disco ball. But when Valentin died in July 2013 from cancer, a loss that came shortly after his niece, mother, and one of his sisters also passed away, Cotto found himself adrift.
"I was just, like, mad at the world, mad at the Lord, mad at everyone, because I was like, why?" he said.
Cotto was walking home through Prospect Park a few weeks after his wife’s death when he came across people skating at the LeFrak Center in Prospect Park. He hadn't kept up with the skate world and didn't realize that right there in the park, mere minutes from his home, people were still doing something he and his friends had helped pioneer thirty years earlier. His passion for skating lit up within him again. He became a regular at the LeFrak Center and then started going to its weekly Dreamland Roller Disco. The flame was fully reignited. Cotto began to once again clean up on the skating floor, winning contest after contest, and earning himself another nickname—the "King of Dreamland."
But Cotto's return to skating hasn't come without some blows, at times literal ones.
In the summer of 2020, Cotto was skating at the park's rink when a child barreled into his legs and knocked him over. The fall fractured his left hip—he had already gotten his right hip replaced when he was 50—and he had to undergo hip surgery again.
Last year, he had two heart attacks and got three stents put in his heart. His stamina isn't what it used to be, as he quickly gets winded and his legs start hurting. "I'll dance for 30 seconds, and I gotta sit for 10 or 15 minutes," he said. "That's the only disappointing thing."
But what Cotto's losing his battle to the quickest is his sight. Because of macular degeneration, he's unable to see out of his right eye, and has diminishing clarity in his left. Seeing in the dark is especially difficult, so he tries to skate when it's bright enough for him to see. He gets to Brooklyn Skates—a roller skating club that is run out of a school gym—an hour early, before they turn off the lights for group skating.
But like back in his Lower East Side days, Cotto has a team around him.
His younger brother Mike has set up a speech-to-text program on Cotto's phone and reads his mail to him. If one day he fully loses his sight, Mike says he will accompany his brother to the rink.
Julie Smoot, Cotto's good friend and skate partner, guides him around the floor when it's too dark and accompanies him to doctor's appointments whenever possible.
Frank Waters, one of the main DJs at Brooklyn Skates, makes sure that the lights are kept on longer than usual for Cotto. "His time is limited," Waters said. "We've gotta support him."
The resurgence of roller skating events in the past few years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, reminds Cotto of the roller skating heydays of his youth. Cotto proudly watches the development of a new generation of talented skaters and readily shares his skating knowledge with them, in order "to give back before I'm not able to." This summer, he's been spending five hours every Sunday afternoon giving lessons at two different rinks and goes out of his way to share his encouragement with promising young skaters.
"I see a lot of great talent. That's why I figured, let me move aside and let these younger folks take over and do their thing," Cotto said.
When the managers at DiscOasis invited him to audition for a paid gig last summer, he jumped at the opportunity to skate with the younger generation. He'd been invited to try out for the glam musical "Starlight Express" back in the '80s but had been offended he had to even audition, so he didn't go for it. He didn't want to have that regret again.
New skaters have appreciated the guidance of veteran skaters such as Cotto. Recently, he was skating at a park and approached two young men in their 20s whom he had seen skating a few times. He told them, "You guys are today's champions." "No, no. You're the king here," they replied, and said that Cotto’s words meant a lot, because of how much they have always admired his style of skating.
Arríanna Santiago, 25, and Sydney Blaylock, 31, who worked alongside Cotto at DiscOasis last summer, said that they and other young skaters regard Cotto with immense respect. "Cotto's a legend," Blaylock said. "Everybody was pretty honored to be in a show with him."
Cotto hopes that once the torch is passed to the next generation of skaters, they will keep the flame burning strong with their love for skating, just like he brought forward the legacy of the skaters before him. "Keep it going, like I did at those times," he said.
He knows his time is limited. This might be his last year on skates, Cotto told me. Then again, he's told himself that every year for the past several years, yet every spring, once the snow melts and it's time to skate again, he has found himself back on his wheels.
When he does decide to hang up his skates, which he admits is coming sooner than he'd like, Cotto wants it to be on his terms. "I don't want to go out when I'm too tired and people are beating me," he says. "I want to go out still strong. People will go, 'Okay, Cotto stopped. Man, the guy was smooth. I don't know why he stopped!' I want to go out like that."
Jane Zhang is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She writes about immigration, race, and roller skating. In her free time, you can find her rock climbing and figure skating, playing board games, and finding great deals.
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