If you’ve driven down Montrose Blvd. at any time during the past several years, you’ve seen him. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve smiled in recognition, maybe even waved at him. He has been called an institution, also the city’s quintessential example of Dionysian rapture, also Dancing Rollerblade Guy.
Dancing Rollerblade Guy is not his real given name, of course, nor is Juan Carlos the Rollerblader, but the latter is what he wants us to call him, and we are not about to argue this point with the city’s quintessential example of Dionysian rapture. Most days, he can be found at the corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose, or Dallas and Montrose, or Washington Ave. and Montrose. Things can get tricky at that last location, where Juan Carlos the Rollerblader quite literally stops traffic. His admirers, he says, “get too crazy when they start stopping to take pictures. The traffic backs up, and I don’t want to make people unhappy.”
Truth to tell, almost never does he make anyone unhappy. Quite the opposite. Even as they are late for carpool at Carnegie Vanguard, or on their way to meet friends at Niko Niko’s, drivers find themselves slowing down in spite of themselves, marveling at the sight of unfettered, un-self-conscious joy before them.
Juan Carlos the Rollerblader, in other words, is a star.
His routines, like that of a figure skater’s, frequently involve complex pirouetting, shimmying, and gesticulating, and culminate in a sort of wobbly scratch spin. But unlike figure skating, there is no season for rollerblading, at least not in Houston. For 12 months a year he is on the road, as it were, performing at least two hours a day to the accompaniment of music from his headphones, not to mention scorching heat, cold, rain, car fumes, and the occasional honk. But his grueling schedule appears to faze him not a jot, aware as he is that stardom always has its downsides.
Thankfully, there are times when he can still be Juan Carlos Not The Rollerblader. On one of these we find ourselves sitting across from him at the West Alabama Ice House with his friend Alvin, a classmate at Houston Community College. We have heard that Juan Carlos does not ordinarily enjoy dancing, that he must be incentivized with rollerblades and street corners. From time to time, however, we detect what is almost certainly a slight shimmy on the other side of the picnic table. We wonder if he has become a prisoner of his persona.
“You’re so crazy,” says Alvin, who appears to have wondered the same thing. Juan Carlos—in an open, embroidered white shirt, black jeans, boots, and gold rings—appears unfazed.
We ask him about his background. He came to Houston 21 years ago by way of New York, he tells us, and was raised between Colombia and Spain. We ask what he does when not rollerblading. He does hair; he does makeup; he’s a painter, a runner of errands, an animal lover, a home cook (“I’m a wonderful cook; I can find no restaurants in Houston that match my food.”) He’s a film student with a special love of two genres: horror and musicals. (“My first film is going to be horror, with a beautiful, gorgeous girl drowning in quicksand, bless her heart.”) And he’s a diehard Wizard of Oz fan who bedizens his own skates with “rubies.” He sets one on the picnic table for us to admire. It is a professional job, to be sure.
We ask how old Juan Carlos is. His eyes widen. We have trespassed on his mystique. “I’m not going to tell you my age,” he says.
His improbable rise to fame began 15 years ago, it turns out, when Juan Carlos began skating for fun behind the old Allen House apartments. There, he perfected the skills and moves that would one day dazzle Allen Parkway.
“I wasn’t being noticeable for a lot of people,” Juan Carlos recalls. “I was kinda hidden, and exercising, and trying to get my belly off.” Did he lose weight? “There is a video of me on YouTube,” he says, motioning to Alvin to search for it. “It has 768,000 views—there are several videos altogether, with two million views—look at that and tell me if I lost weight.” The three of us watch the video. Indeed, he looks 20 pounds lighter now. “How come I don’t look like a stick? Because I go home and I eat like a pig,” he says.
“You look cute,” Alvin assures him.
You get the sense that for Juan Carlos, being Juan Carlos the Rollerblader is a burden at times, but he just can’t stay home. “My blood starts boiling,” he says, and his feet carry him out of the house. He skates just about every day, although he did miss a few in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in April. “I was so upset. I was trying to pay tribute to them. But then three days go by, and I went back to life.” The people needed to see joy again, didn’t they? Sure enough, when he returned to his corner, someone had put up a sign: “Where are you Mr. Rollerblade Dancer? It’s been a shitty week. We miss you.”
Moments like that make the sacrifices—all the crap that comes with celebrity—worth it. Even the cellphones. Hardly has he glided into his first move before people begin holding the cellphones out their windows, snapping pictures even as they wave and give him a thumbs-up.
“They say, ‘You are famous, you are a star.’ I say, ‘I love you too.’ They say, ‘You make me happy.’ They say, ‘You are awesome.’ I say, ‘You are awesome as well.’ We all have something good. You just to have to discover it.”
Sometimes people want autographs or to pose for pictures; a few want to skate with him. “They say ‘Can I rollerblade with you?’ I say ‘Sweetheart, I’m listening to my music.’ … I am shy. My friends say ‘You are not shy at all, there is not a piece of your body that is shy,’ but I am.” Juan Carlos the Rollerblader is misunderstood. But this too goes with being a star.