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Skateboarder Daniel Kim chuckles as his two youngest students sit on their boards and ride down a skate ramp. Milo and Iyad are 3 and 4 years old, respectively, and thrilled by their new skateboards, which they mainly use as sleds. The boys and Milo's 6-year-old sister, Emilia, are a few years younger than the ideal student, but they're getting the hang of it. Emilia zips around Shaw Skate Park in a skirt and embroidered sweater as she practices stopping.
"She's doing really well for somebody who's only had two lessons," Kim says. "She already knows how to ride a skateboard and she already looks pretty comfortable on it."
Kim started his skate school, Street Smart Skate, back in May, after noticing a trend in the D.C. skate scene. Kim has been skating in D.C. for about a decade, and says he's seen a spike in youth interest during the past five years.
"Everywhere I go I see a lot of new, younger kids, and a lot of them really are just sitting on their skateboards, you know, on their knees and just pushing with their hands," Kim says. "They like skateboarding, but they just don't know what to do on the skateboard."
Kim says he started the skate lesson company because he wanted to help the community and build support for the rising number of kids who want to skate, but don't know how. "It's all about building a community of friends and learning off each other and teaching each other," he says.
Not only are there more young skaters, but also the group is crossing racial boundaries. "It used to be a lot of Caucasian males in their teens to twenties," Kim says. "Nowadays you'll see a bunch of young, black kids around like, 9 to 17-year-olds. It's completely different."
Pro-skater and D.C. native Darren Harper is known as the "Obama of skateboarding." He's also noticed a change in the demographics of the District's skate scene.
"Now you have more kids, I'm going to say like inner-city, like, the urban kids in the hood, they're starting to skate," Harper says. "They're starting to come out. They're starting to look at skateboarding as another outlet, and that's what's so beautiful about it."
Both men largely attribute this rising trend to pop culture and the commercialization of skateboarding. "I think why it's changed is because you have your rap artists who have been wearing our gear, our skateboard gear and things like that, and of course they get all the airplay on TV, so the kids get to see that," says Harper.
"You know, a lot of prominent rappers these days like Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Odd Future, they all kind of started wearing skateboarding clothes, putting some shine on skateboarding," Kim says. "They even rap about skateboarding, so I guess once kids started hearing about that they're like, OK, they feel like it was cool."
Harper and Kim also say that visibility is a factor. During the past five years, new skate parks, shops, and events have attracted newcomers to the sport. Thirteen-year-old Devin Dickerson-Diggs says he was riding around with his dad one day when they drove past U Street and saw a horde of skaters participating in National Go Skateboarding Day, a sort of holiday for skaters.
"I fell in love immediately," he says. "It just looked so cool, like the competitions that was going on, the tricks, you know, how hyped people would get. And after I saw that, I was hooked."
Devin has been skating for three years now, and says the sport is a great stress-reliever. There are also other benefits to the art form. Kim says skateboarding is a healthy activity that gets kids off the couch, and others agree.
Kevin Green's son, Kordell, comes to Shaw Skate Park every day. He says he's seen the positive effect that skateboarding has had on his kids.
"I've watched how this whole relationship with skateboarding has brought them into focus in a way that, as a parent, I probably would not have been able to so early," he says. "I mean simple things like getting your homework done, cleaning up your room, having interests other than just sitting home playing video games."
Harper learned to skate during the late '80s, after finding a discarded skateboard in his neighborhood. He now says skateboarding saved his life, and is a healthy way to keep kids out of trouble.
"The skating keeps them active, and I know when I came up, when there was negative things going on, half of the time skateboarding kept me away from that because I was down here," Harper says. "I was able to leave the neighborhood and the block and get away from the violence and everything that was going on."
Ironically, skateboarding is associated more with rebellion than reform. Kim says skateboarding is an innocent, fun activity that is often misjudged. "Most people think of skateboarding as some sort of derelict, punk, type thing where kids are just up to no good," Kim says. "But they're going to realize soon that skateboarding is actually a healthy and positive thing for the kids to do."
Kim predicts that schools will eventually embrace skateboarding as a serious sport, like football or baseball. But for now, class is held wherever Kim and his students roll to.
[Music: "Roll Out - My Business (In the style of Ludacris)" by Off the Record Karaoke from Most Famous Beats ]