In 1980, a photographer was sent out to the depths of Brooklyn to document the cultural phenomenon occurring on a nightly basis in a 36,000 square-foot warehouse of a building.

Patrick D. Pagnano, who worked for Forbes, traveled with his cameras to the Crown Heights neighborhood, where just around the corner from where the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field once stood he slipped into the crowd at the Empire Rollerdrome and began shooting.

There he captured the latest sensation to take the city by storm: New Yorkers young and old twirling across maple floorboards, dancing on roller skates to the pulse of disco beats beneath a marquee declaring they were in ‘the birthplace of roller disco.’

Founded in 1941, the Empire Rollerdrome had spent its 40 years at the cutting edge of music and dance. The rink’s first sound system was purchased and repurposed from the 1939 World’s Fair, and by the late ’50s the owners had started the State Roller Skating Championship bringing widespread attention to the art of dancing on roller skates, according to AnOther magazine.

By the 60s, DJs at the Rollerdrome were spinning the latest jazz, blues, R&B and soul tracks while the skaters danced on and invented signature dances, then into the 70s disco exploded onto the scene at the rink and before long roller disco could be seen all across the country.

But the Empire Rollerdrome was always home to the movement. The designer behind the music at Studio 54 overhauled the Rollerdrome’s sound system, Cher hosted the release party for her 1979 disco album there, and some of Rollerdrome’s stalwart skaters were being hired to Hollywood to consult on film choreography.

‘It was the first time I had been to Crown Heights,’ Pagnano said of that night in 1980, according to Huck magazine. ‘Once I entered the rink I was transported to another world and was in my element.’

Forbes never ended up running the story on the Rollerdrome, and Pagnano’s pictures wound up forgotten in his files while the rink finally closed its doors in 2007. Now, memories of the Rollerdrome and Pagnano’s photos have seen the light of day again with the release of the book Empire Roller Disco, which over 132 pages showcase the photographer’s snapshots of an American moment.  

A man decked out in a cowboy costume dances across the boards at the Empire Rollerdrome

Empire Roller Disco was released in April, returning to light the lost work of Patrick Pagnano

Two men dancing on their skates in the crowd at the Empire Rollerdrome in 1980

The Rollerdrome became the capital of skating and dancing to disco music in the ’70s and ’80s

A woman glides by on her skates at the Empire Rollerdrome in 1980 while disco music plays

A crowd of dancers skating to disco music at the Empire Rollerdrome on a night in 1980

A skater takes center stage while dancing at the Empire Rollerdrome in 1980

Two women skate by at the Empire Rollerdrome in 1980 while disco music plays on

Pagnano was sent to the Rollerdrome by Forbes magazine to document the dancing sensation

A woman works her way across the floor at the Empire Rollerdrome on a night in 1980

The Empire Rollerdrome finally closed its doors in 2007 after opening in 1941

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