In his plaid suspenders, feather-shaped earring and white Rydell quad skates, Burt DeZarn burns up the rink at Jellybeans every Saturday – a 76-year-old roller-champ with moves that catch envious eyes.
Under the twinkle of the disco ball, tween-age girls roll past with hot-pink knee pads and wheels that light up purple and green. Boys with peach-fuzz mustaches circle in oversized Carolina Hurricanes hoodies, working hard to look effortlessly cool. But DeZarn outshines them all at the center of the rink, twirling, spinning and practically break-dancing.
At the high point of his routine, this retired grandfather drops to the floor and kicks like a Russian folk dancer, an MP3 player strapped to his head with an orange bandana, jamming to his personal selection of bluegrass, gospel, smooth jazz and “old-school jam music.”
“The one I like is called ‘Shackles’ by R.J.’s Latest Arrival,” said DeZarn. “I can’t skate to rap.”
Never miss a local story.
DeZarn’s weekly performance at Jellybeans off Buck Jones Road provides as much entertainment as the skating itself, more than worth the ticket price. A retiree can nurture a variety of obsessions given time – beekeeping, scrapbooking, ranting on Facebook – but as far as he can tell, DeZarn is the only septuagenarian around trying to revive aerobic roller disco.
“He’s kind of become a spectacle,” said Jellybeans’ owner Bill Farley. “Somebody like that, we always try to shake their hand.”
In his earlier days, DeZarn worked as a quality control director for a defense contractor in Florida, and he followed one of his daughters to the Triangle. He didn’t take a stab at rollerskating until 1980, when he caught the urge during a Girl Scouts fundraiser. He kept at his hobby over the next four decades, except for a four-year hiatus.
“The music got kind of bad, so I got into Irish step dancing,” he said. “Then my pub closed.”
There might be words for the moves he chooses, technical terms from a how-to-skate manual. But I couldn’t find any description that does DeZarn’s skating justice. From the sidelines, it looked like he alternates between moonwalking, clogging, the Soul Train line dance and that shoe-shuffle step from “The Breakfast Club.” When he threw himself on the floor and started kicking, I thought of a young Sammy Davis Jr.
“It’s like a surfer being out on a surfboard,” DeZarn said. “The breeze is blowing by. I just kind of get in my own world.”
As a non-skater who fell constantly even as a 10-year-old, I consider DeZarn’s age only a sidebar to his talent. He’d be a sight to admire at any age. Still, the added challenge of muscle degeneration boosts his prowess to the skater’s Olympus.
“At my age,” he said, “you can’t just sit.”
At least not until couples’ skate. Then grab a well-deserved breath.