Nostalgia has been a big theme of summer 2020. As we’ve adapted to the extremes of living amidst a pandemic, many have sought to return to simpler times by trading screen-time and newsfeeds with baking bread, arts and crafts, or reveling in cottagecore. For those who want to get outside, roller skating has seen a boom. Since May, roller skates sales have climbed as some try out the sport for the first time and others return to it. The activity continues to saturate social media with TikTokers, teens, and millennials alike sharing videos of themselves gliding and dancing on their four-wheel skates.
Roller skating’s current resurgence comes as another wave of popularity within a centuries-long history of the pastime coming in and out of trend. When roller skates were first invented in the 18th century, the inline model had small metal wheels and were difficult to maneuver. Innovators continued to tinker with their design throughout the first half of the 1800s. In 1863, James Leonard Plimpton patented the first quad skate, which featured four wheels and a pivoting mechanism that allowed for skaters to steer by shifting their weight, rather than leaning to one side. The skates were a hit and the first public skating rinks soon opened in the U.S. By the 1880s, they were being mass-produced because there was such a high demand for roller skates. Plimpton is largely credited for introducing modern roller skates, but other improvements were added to his design throughout the 19th century, such as the toe stop and pin ball-bearing wheels, which reduced friction and made skates lighter.
During the mid-20th century, roller skating was the number one participatory sport in America. The so-called Golden Age of Roller Skating lasted from 1937 to 1959, catalyzed by the need for stress relief during World War II. The activity made for an easy and accessible pastime, beloved by adults and children alike. During this period, different forms of roller skating emerged as forms of recreation, including speed skating, skate dancing, and roller derby. Roller skating was also recognized as a competitive sport, with national competitions held and conventions organized across America.
It wasn’t until the ‘70s and ‘80s, however, that the wildly popular roller disco emerged. People would flock to the rinks, where the pop music of the era would blast and people could dance and skate. This would be a formative time for roller skating in pop culture, with movies like Roller Boogie, Skatetown U.S.A., and Xanadu putting actors on skates. When hip-hop gained traction in the ‘80s, skate rinks were a main venue for emerging artists and DJs. Music became a key part of skating culture, and continues to determine how skate rinks are populated today.
“The way a skating rink determines who comes to the rink is usually through the type of music that they play, and some rinks will only have one night of R&B,” Kyle Black, the owner of Detroit’s Rollercade tells CR. The Rollercade was opened by Black’s grandparents in 1955, during the height of the civil rights movement, when rinks were segregated and only had one night for Black roller skaters. It was the first African-American owned skating rink in the U.S., and as such, the first to welcome Black roller skaters every night of business.
Even as rinks around the country became officially desegregated, the music the venues would play controlled African-American attendance. Rap, soul, and R&B nights, which were usually just once a week, became the de facto code for when Black customers could skate. In some areas they were called “soul nights” or “adult nights.” Many skating rinks continue to use the terminology today. Now, however, adult skate nights are a celebration of Black skate culture. Many patrons have been attending the same ones for years, and the sense of community runs deep. Adult skate nights play host to expert skaters who dance, dip, and glide across the floor. Their history of segregation isn’t entirely forgotten, however, as rinks still have regulations–hip-hop music, sagging pants, and small wheels, which are preferred by many Black skaters–that deter Black customers from specific venues.
“We have a large amount of rinks that cater to African-American culture in Detroit because it is a heavily populated African-American city,” Mr. Black says, “but I’ve been to other cities where I’ve talked to people who are into skate culture and they say that they sometimes have to go to different rinks or bring their own music and put headphones in.”
The whitewashing of roller skating’s history is a concern among old and new skaters alike. The activity’s current success is largely thanks to the Black and queer skaters who have kept it alive. Although its history is marked by prejudice, roller skating rinks provided a refuge for marginalized people. Black roller skaters created a community and culture that has endured through the years, even before TikTok brought attention to it. United Skates, a 2019 documentary, chronicles the history of Black roller skating rinks and also touches on how there are fewer and fewer rinks each year. Black skaters are a key demographic for the ones still standing.
For the Rollercade, Southwest Detroit’s diverse community has kept the business going for 65 years. “Rollercade and Southwest Detroit are synonymous,” Mr. Black says. To continue his family’s legacy, he hopes to continue to improve the facility. When his grandparents first built the rink, they were only allowed to buy two commercial lots. Over the years, Mr. Black’s family acquired the remaining parcels on the block, and he now hopes that they will be able to expand and update the Rollercade. The rink has been closed since March, but business has been booming in other ways–roller skates have been selling out on its online shop.
Roller skating has become so popular this summer that it’s now nearly impossible to find a pair. The rest of us will have to make do with watching skating videos on social media. But as videos of white, suburban teens roller skating gain hundreds of thousands of views, Black skaters are demanding recognition. Their culture is ingrained in the skating itself, with the popular gliding style (similar to moonwalking), originating from the Black roller skating community.
Some believe that algorithms are partially responsible for the whitewashing, as platforms like TikTok and Instagram continue to promote posts that mimic each other, creating an echo chamber. This prevents the various skating styles of the Black community, such as freestyle jam, from getting exposure, promoting the idea that roller skating is a homogenous sport.
Users such as Ana Coto (who went viral for a video of her roller skating to Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From the Block) and Jay Lampy have used their platforms to bring attention to roller skating’s history and direct audiences of their content towards Black roller skaters, like Toni Bravo. As quarantine-fatigued teens lace-up their roller skates, it’s important to remember that the freedom they are gleaning from skating now comes from a legacy of marginalized communities that fought for that same liberation.END
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createdAt:Tue, 04 Aug 2020 21:52:51 +0000