About halfway through any given skating session at Empire Roller Rink, the first eight beats of the Limbo Rock snap the attention of dozens of children and even some adults. They stop what they’re doing and rush to the skate floor to claim their spots in line.
Once in line, the competition becomes intense as participants try their best to get as low as they can on skates to maneuver under the bar. This limbo differs from the on-foot style in that contestants don’t have to bend backwards. Instead, they bend forward over their legs, sometimes in positions similar to doing the splits, to get under the bar. The goal is still to be the lowest and to become that session’s limbo champ.
The path to limbo supremacy at Empire runs to one person, Danielle Tapia, the limbo queen of Columbia. The 12-year-old Gentry Middle School student spends a few nights each week at Empire and consistently wins the limbo contest.
Seeing her compete in the limbo leaves first-time viewers and veteran limbo competitors in awe. Random yells of “oh, that was cool,” “c’mon, make it,” and “wow” rise above the conversations taking place on the skate floor and seating areas.
Standing alongside the east wall, Danielle focuses intently on the two poles holding up the obstacle, the bar. Her goal: to get under that bar, no matter its height. She starts on her right skate, quickly places the palms of her hands on each foot and grasps each skate as she begins to fall into a position like the splits. She leans head-first, preparing to go under, and keeps herself up by smoothly balancing on the inside wheels of her skates to glide easily under the bar.
At this point, it’s clear that Danielle can do things on skates that some people can’t do on foot. She attributes her skills to her on-again, off-again gymnastics training during the past six years and a decade of going to the rink, sparked by her older brother Dylan’s love for skating.
Being extremely flexible is one skill that helps to win the limbo, but size can also be important. The smaller children have an advantage in the game because they have less height to get down to, but the bigger kids, who tend to be the older ones, are typically the most creative in how they get under the bar. Taking sideways approaches, doing the splits or using speed as a weapon, they attack the challenge of getting under the bar in a way that rivals their smaller competitors’ size advantage.
“It’s fun, the kids get really excited about it,” says Lauren Leonard, an employee at the rink. “I’m amazed at what they do and jealous because I’m not quite talented enough to do what they do.”
Before each competition, Danielle practices for the main event. For the first half of the session, she does her own thing, but often allows others to join her in the serious-fun of preparing for the limbo. With the background noise of her favorite skating music genre, hip-hop, she’ll practice the Duck Shoot position (a game in which players must be in a sitting position, balancing on one skate with the other leg extended out in the air and both hands in the air) and can be seen going under an imaginary bar and stretching to get the flexibility needed to succeed.
“I practice so much so my legs don’t hurt,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I feel a little bit of pain when she goes under the bar,” Leonard says jokingly. “It fascinates me that she can get that low.”
The sixth-grader, whose favorite subject is math, knows that hours of practice lead to being known as the reigning queen of the limbo contest, but “queen” might be too bold a word. The modest Danielle often demonstrates to others how to do what she does.
“It’s funny; the kids ask me how I do it, and I try and teach them,” she says. Teach them she does, but few are able to mimic her flawless or effortless approach when it comes to the limbo. Most fall over within a few seconds, but the effort they put in is quite serious and intense. They’ve seen what it takes to win, and Danielle is the embodiment of that ‘it.’
The master of fancy footwork has no problem teaching her interests to others. Her mother, Sandi, says Danielle has a very nurturing personality and that it’s evident when she works with 8-year-old Kelsey Zwonitzer. Kelsey is also particularly talented at the limbo, and watching her perhaps provides a glimpse of what Danielle may have looked like doing the limbo at that age.
The past is leading to a promising future. The skilled skating that Danielle has developed over the years at Empire has inspired her to want to become a professional figure skater — on ice . Her mother would like her to become a lawyer, but Danielle didn’t put up much of a fight, instead commenting that arguing was too hard. Danielle has a talent, however, for making the limbo, which some regard as difficult, look like child’s play. She’ll have to settle for winning candy and novelties after each limbo contest for now, but perhaps the future will offer a chance to win a gold medal or two.
After all, what queen would be complete without her gold?